Ancient solutions for a very modern problem
At first glance, a small community of First Nation Indians living on reservations in western Canada’s Bear Hills would appear to have little in common with Grand Cayman.
But the story of the Maskwaci Cree, a 15,000 population aboriginal community, and their fight against gang crime is being used as a working example of how the Caribbean territory can respond to the threat of gangs.
Inspector Charles Wood of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been heavily involved in the tiny community, which suffers an average of eight homicides a year.
He spoke last week to an audience including police officers, teachers and social workers at the Westin in Grand Cayman about the collaborative approach authorities in that community have adopted to combat gang violence.
“The level of organisation of the gangs, in terms of the fact that they are clan and friendship based and quite loosely organised, and the level of violence they show to each other has parallels with Grand Cayman,” he told the Caymanian Compass.
Police make between 3,000 and 4,000 arrests annually in the Hobbema, a staggering number considering the size of the community. The crisis reached a peak in 2008 when a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting struck and injured a 23-month old girl eating dinner at a kitchen table.
Underpinning much of the criminal activity and fuelling the gang scene are high levels of youth unemployment, serious alcohol and drug abuse and issues with domestic violence.
When police attempted to get to grips with gangs in Hobbema, they knew it was something they could not do alone.
Inspector Wood said: “We keep asking the community why? Why are there youth gangs? Why is there youth violence? The answer we get is the youth are in gangs and the gangs are at war.
“Then we have to ask, why are the youth in gangs? They are being drawn there because of something that is missing in their life that they are looking for in the gang.
“There is an aboriginal concept called the home fires. If your home is right, your family is getting what it needs and the home fires are strong.
“If your home is disorganised, if members of the family abuse drugs and alcohol, if there is domestic violence, your home fires are weak.
“That is when a young person seeks his sense of belonging and self esteem in a gang.”
Inspector Wood was invited to Grand Cayman as part of a police-led effort to bring the community together to help prevent young people being drawn into gangs.
Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Commissioner David Baines said the Canadian inspector had been invited to the seminar along with a Florida-based US gang expert, because Cayman’s gang scene was a “hybrid” of the two.
“Our media, our culture, our television and our films come from the US, so the model and style and symbols and behaviour of gangs replicate what you see in the US.
“Our community is actually more like the Canadian aboriginal communities – small, tight, blood is thicker than water. There are similarities about community, family ties and geography in all of this.”
Inspector Wood acknowledged the Cayman Island’s gang scene had not yet escalated to the point where the parallels were evident in the crime statistics. And he praised authorities in the territory for attempting to get ahead of the problem before it reached that stage.
What success has been achieved in Hobbema has come from treating the root causes of gang violence – addressing addiction, mental health problems and providing young people with constructive activities.
One recent innovation in the community is a monthly gathering called “the hub”, a concept borrowed from Glasgow, Scotland, that features monthly meetings between police, health and social services, child protection officials, housing officers, educators and other stakeholders.
This allows officers to focus the right resources on the dysfunctional families causing a disproportionate amount of the drama.
“We started with 46 families that we had termed as “at risk” and we have been able to reduce that to 16 over the past nine months,” said Inspector Wood.
Hobbema is starting to see a slow turn around. The number of shootings are down, truancy appears to be down and Inspector Wood senses a new feeling of hope in the community. But he cautions it took several years to reach that stage.
“It will take time. It took us five years before the upward spike in crime started to plateau.
“It took a while for the measures we had taken to soak through to the roots of the community. It is not a short-term solution, it has taken a long time to get to this stage. It will take the collective efforts of the community to turn the situation around.”