NEWS

Alberta First Nation voting on whether to give band power to evict gang members

01/04/2012 01:18 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST
HOBBEMA, Alta. - A crime-troubled First Nation south of Edmonton has voted to give community leaders the power to evict suspected gang members.

When ballots were counted Wednesday night, the result was 479 in favour and 369 against the proposed bylaw, which must still be ratified by the Department of Indian Affairs.

If that is done, it would mean any 25 residents of the 7,000-member Samson Cree band in Hobbema could apply to have someone legally removed from the reserve.

The plan to hold the vote was approved after the chief's five-year-old grandson was killed by a gunshot in July while sleeping in his bedroom during a drive-by shooting, but it also reflects concern about ongoing gang violence.

Samson resident Roy Louis said people are fed up with crime, but there are also concerns that such evictions would mean gang members would simply move to one of the other three reserves in the Hobbema area.

"It is fine and dandy to have a bylaw to banish some of the gang members, but it has to be in sync with the other three nations," Louis said.

"We don't want the gang members to simply cross the street to the Ermineskin First Nation or the Louis Bull First Nation or Montana First Nation."

About a dozen gangs have been fighting over the drug trade in Hobbema's four First Nations, where more than half of the 14,000 residents are under 18 years old.

Drive-by shootings have been a problem since 2008, when a 23-month-old toddler was shot as she sat at the kitchen table eating supper. Asia Saddleback survived, but the bullet is permanently lodged between her liver and spine.

Since then there have been numerous other shootings. In some cases, people have been killed or wounded. In others cases, gang members have riddled homes with bullets.

More than 42 RCMP are posted in the Hobbema area, one of the highest officer-to-population ratios in Canada, and Mounties say the crime rate is slowly improving.

Over the years, police and the community have tried different measures to reduce crime and gang activity, including a community task force, a gun amnesty and a cadet corps for young people.

Staff Sgt. Robin Alexander, second in command at the detachment, said the idea of banishing gang members has some support on the Samson reserve, but won't in itself solve the problem.

He said improving community safety is a gradual process that includes parenting classes, addictions counselling, better street lighting and shutting derelict houses.

"We see it as another tool that the community is trying to implement to enhance community safety," Alexander said.

RCMP have also said people in the community must be more willing to speak to police about gang activity and to testify in court.

A similar bylaw was passed in 2009 by the Enoch First Nation just west of Edmonton.

Louis said the bylaw appears to be working in Enoch, but it is not fair to compare the two communities. He said Enoch is much smaller than Samson and is not adjacent to other First Nations.

Banishing young gang members from communities may sound like a good idea to people who are weary of hearing gunshots and police sirens in the night, but he questions if it would really solve the problem.

"There is no simple solution to this. What are we doing to get the gang members to bring them into something more positive for themselves, like getting their education?"

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

MORE:cpNews