STARPHOENIX, AUGUST 1, 2014
Cassandra has lived the life of a gangster.
She’s seen young women sell themselves on the street for a half gram of coke. She’s seen boyfriends come home tweaked out after three days of partying and start beating their girlfriends.
She’s taken care of gang members who bled all over her living room because they refused to go a hospital after a being stabbed in a fight. She’s tended the wounds with maxi pads and tensor bandages.
For more than a decade, this was her scenery, the world in which she lived as a member of the notorious Native Syndicate street gang.
She counts herself lucky to have survived it for so long.
“I was six months pregnant and I got stabbed in the head three times. I had a fractured tailbone and three broken ribs and it was over f—ing gang shit,” Cassandra said in an interview earlier this week.
When she joined the Native Syndicate around the age of 18, she was one of only a handful of women in the gang. There were others around, but most of them were the wives or girlfriends of the male members, not full time gangbangers.
Cassandra, whose last name is being withheld for safety reasons, left the gang life behind with the help of an outreach program called Str8Up, but an army of young women have taken her place.
Saskatoon police say that in the last year they have seen a marked increase in the number of young women with gang ties.
“We have a lot more girls that are a lot more active now,” said Saskatoon police Insp. Jerome Engele.
“We are seeing more crime where girls are involved.”
Saskatoon is now home to at least one all-female gang, the South Side Queens, but many other young girls are simply part of larger street gangs like the Terror Squad, Indian Posse or Native Syndicate.
Faith Eagle grew up in a world where joining a gang seemed like the only option. She is originally from the U.S., but moved to Regina at a young age. Her whole family was involved in gang life, and when she came of age, the transition seemed inevitable to her.
Now that Eagle has left that life behind, she watches in pain as her daughter adopts the gang lifestyle.
“I see her following in my footsteps. She knows what I did,” Eagle said.
Her daughter’s Facebook profile is full of photos of the teen wearing coloured bandanas and hanging out with known gang members, Eagle said. Although she wants her daughter to stay away from the gang life, it’s hard for her stand in judgment.
“You are trapped with who you are on the street. If you are strong, everyone will respect you, but if your are weak people will just boss you around and make you do whatever,” Eagle said.
Like Eagle, Cheryl Taniskishayinew is trying hard to leave the street life behind. Cheryl joined a gang when she was 13. She was a “soldier,” which meant she had the same responsibilities as some of her male counterparts.
“I always had to feel like I had to be one of the guys or else I would be pimped out,” Taniskishayinew said.
According to Statistics Canada, there’s been a steady increase the number of women committing crimes since the late 1970s. Since 1991, the rate of females committing violent crimes has increased 34 per cent. And females are also making up larger and larger segments of the young offender population. In 2009, Stats Canada said girls made up more than a quarter of all youth charged by police.
The only reliable data on the number of females involved in gangs is more than a decade old, but even women who live it say they’ve seen an increase.
“They are doing what the guys are doing,” Cassandra said. “They are doing the (armed robberies), they are jumping other girls, they got girls working in the sex trade.”
Like many street gangs, the aboriginal gangs these women were affiliated with gain much of their strength from inside prison walls.
A spokesperson from the Correctional Service of Canada said that since 2010, the number of female gang members has remained steady at around four per cent of Canada’s entire prison population.
Representatives from both Corrections and the provincial justice department, which runs Saskatchewan’s only all-female adult prison, Pine Grove Correction Centre, denied requests for interviews on the subject.
Andre Poilievre, a Catholic priest who worked in prisons, is helping Eagle and other former gang members adjust to life outside the gang. Through the Str8Up program, he has helped countless people leave that life behind. He says female gang members are more easily judged for their lifestyle.
“I think society will look at female gang members in a different way then male gang members. We’ll say, ‘Hey, he’s a guy. Women, they should know better,’ ’’ Poilievre said.
Eagle and Taniskishayinew both said their children are the reason they left the gang life in the first place.
The same is true of many other women and men, according to Poilievre.
Eagle said giving birth can really change the mindset of a female gang member.
“We are the ones who look after the kids. It comes to the point where we don’t want to see the kids hurt.”