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Just call me Sis: A former gang member describes how she left the lifestyle

By Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

*Sis was 10 when, following her older brother, she joined a gang. That’s also when she started using cocaine and began a life of criminal activity.  

Sis felt invincible. 

She was a member of a notorious Indigenous street gang. She had power, control, respect. People feared her. Being a part of the gang made her feel secure, accepted and worthy. To her, that lifestyle was normal. 

“I always knew I was going to be associated because my brother was and I was really close to him. I just wanted to follow my brother. 

“It just really became a normal life for me,” she said. 

Being a part of the gang gave her a sense of belonging and it was an escape from her dysfunctional childhood, a childhood surrounded by alcoholism and what she describes as every type of abuse as her family struggled with intergenerational trauma from residential schools and addiction.

“Right from conception we all got brought up with trauma in some type of way.”

Her parents weren’t there for her. 

“It was always the drugs first, or the boyfriend, or the girlfriend first. It was never ‘my child is hungry, my child needs a hug’ so that’s why you seek things in other groups or relationships.”

Sis found ‘family’ in the gang.  

As she grew up in the gang she became tough, street wise, hardened. 

“Everybody has a street mentality, take no shit kind of thing. You have to put a wall around yourself, don’t show fear, don’t show weakness.

“I made that reputation,” she added. “I made people respect me out of fear. I made them scared.”

She knew being part of a gang was dangerous but for her that was OK. 

“I knew that it was a dangerous life that I committed myself to. I was never really concerned about it. I knew in my head that nothing would happen to me. I was untouchable. I was fearless and I was really rebellious. I didn’t care.

“I was addicted to the adrenalin eventually as I got older,” she added. “I was already using drugs when I was 10 years old. Just from using you get that addictive personality so I started getting addicted to the adrenalin I felt when I would be around my friends my family.”

She started out committing break and enters at 10. Then gradually, her crimes became more serious. 

Gang lifestyle becomes destructive

Eventually, the gang lifestyle took its toll. The big brother she adored, looked up to and wanted to be like, was murdered. 

“He had his throat slit,” she said. 

And Sis ended up in Edmonton prison three times, for two years plus a day, then for 40 months and then for three and a half years. 

While in prison the gang members she considered family weren’t there for her. 

“When I went to jail I realized nobody was there, these people I grew up with and grew tight relationships with, they wouldn’t even write me or send me money,” she said. 

Slowly she realized she wasn’t invincible. She was vulnerable and watched as many she loved and grew up with died. Their children were being taken away by social services and put into foster care. Their lives were in shambles. Sis looked at her own life and realized she needed to make changes. 

“Just watching a lot of the people struggling with addiction, people dying or getting killed from rivals, people like self-harming, losing their kids to the system. I knew I had a purpose deeper than the life I lived for 20 years. I was too involved in that life. I was so used to being a gangster. My kids got taken. I went to the pen three times. I finally realized enough is enough.”

The gang was changing, too.

“A lot of the street code changed. A lot of the original ones that I looked up to left, my mentors. That really pushed me to move forward and I guess say goodbye. I spoke to a lot of the original ones, the ones that were like ‘Sis, there is a different way.’

“It was falling apart so really there was no jump out,” she added. “There were too many people just dying and just getting sick of it, the addiction, people caught up on that crystal meth. They were putting that before the code.”

And slowly, Sis began to change. 

“It started when I was in jail. I didn’t like how things were going in there. Everyone was against each other, everybody was fighting so I started doing positive things, being a leader for the population and being an advocate for protests in there and committee meetings. I just really tried to become that leader inside of there in a positive way instead of being that leader that said, ‘Let’s go do this, let’s roll on so and so and show them who is boss.’ I didn’t want to resort to that. I just had bigger plans.”

Sis turned to elders and found solace in traditional First Nations ceremonies. 

She said she also got unexpected help and support from former gang members who successfully turned their lives around. And she knew, she could too. 

“Hearing them say ‘You can do it, Sis,’ getting that unexpected reassurance.” 

In Saskatoon, Sis also met Stan Tu’Inkuafe from STR8 UP, a Saskatoon-based non-profit that helps gang members leave the lifestyle. 

Challenges quitting the gang 

Leaving behind the only life she knew wasn’t easy.

“The hardest part was leaving the only family I ever knew and letting go of that power and control I worked so hard for. You go from a little person to working your way up and you have all this, ‘do this and do that.’ Letting go of that was the hardest thing.

“I still kind of struggle with the power and control loss,” she added with a laugh. “For real,” she said and chuckled. 

“Lately I have been blessed with a lot of support, linking up with Stan from STR8 UP and just taking all the stuff I need to take to be a good role model.”

Since leaving the gang, however, she doesn’t fear for her safety.

“I don’t feel afraid for my life. I don’t know anything about their stuff now because so much has changed. It’s more or less, I guess just minions, puppets now. A lot of things have changed.

“I probably could have had something bad happen if I didn’t have seniority,” she added. “So you are given that blessing, you have done your time and you put in your work you could say. I had a legit reason and sometimes people had other reasons, not legit, sometime they want to go with someone else. Mine was for myself and my children.”

But what does scare her is society. 

“I will be honest. Still today I struggle with anxiety of the cops even though I’m a law-abiding citizen you know, and going into like organizations or public places where there’s people in higher professions than I am. It gets me really nervous. I still struggle like ordering food. I don’t know how to be clear about things sometimes, because everything is taken from you there.”

Some fears are ingrained. 

“You don’t want to carry a phone. You don’t want to wear a certain colour. I wasn’t allowed to be in a certain area. I still have that anxiety. 

Sis said she had several altercations with police at a certain convenience store. Now when she sees one, it triggers fear. 

“So it’s places like that that trigger that scared institutionalized mentality.”

Starting over

After being addicted to cocaine since she was 10, she values her sobriety.

“Every day it’s a struggle, you know, being an addict for 20 plus years to hard drugs it’s hard. I do value my sobriety. I value my children and their life.” 

Sis has advice for anyone considering joining a gang. 

“I would say it’s not the way it used to be. A lot of loyalty has been lost. So many people roll on you. If you don’t make good choices, Karma makes it easy, whether it be to you, or your family, or worse, your kids and your grandkids, it goes around. What goes around comes around.”

She also wants other gang members to know they can use the skills they learned on the streets.

“You can use the skills from the streets and make them transferable so you can fulfill your purpose. Money management communication, management, for real,” she laughed. “Because when you are in that life, it’s basically like you’re like running an organization. You handle money, you communicate with people, all different types of people, you do like time management, you are punctual with your time. The skills I learned in that life I definitely transfer them into my life now.”

She wants current gang members to realize there’s more to life. 

“I have another friend that left, she was in the same as me and now she is doing gang intervention and I just want more of that around before it’s too late.”

For anyone considering leaving a gang, Sis speaks from experience when she says, “This is just a part in your book and that chapter has come to an end. Continue on and set your expectations high. We are all resilient people. We all had some trauma right from conception and your book doesn’t end here.”

Above all, she doesn’t want her children to follow in her steps, like she followed her brother.

“Now that I’m on a different path l try to role model the best possible attitude as possible around my kids. I try not let them be around arguing. I try to give them everything I needed when I was a kid. When you’re not given that attention, affection, or love or respect, you look for it somewhere else. I make sure they are heard. 

“I hope my kids don’t take that life,” she added. “I really try to be a good role model to my children.”

Sis takes full responsibility for the harm she caused and crimes she committed while a gang member.

“I have done my fair share. I wouldn’t want to relive any of those moments. I have to deal with some undealt- with trauma from those kinds of situations.”

She paid her debt to society, spending years in prison and now Sis wants to give back. 

She is taking upgrading in Saskatoon and plans to attend college this fall.

“I’m going to take mental health and wellness. It’s a two-year course. I want to eventually become a social worker. That’s my goal.”

*Name changed 

Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Battlefords Regional News-Optimist

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