MUENSTER, Sask. — “Those who are in jail, are they the bad people? That’s the label on our members: they’re losers, lock them up and throw away the key,” said Rev. André Poilièvre of Saskatoon, describing his work with former gang members.
“It is not a question of being good or bad. It is a question of being healthy, about healing people who are broken, not punishing them. Let the courts, the police, do that,” he said to group of 25 students and faculty at a noon luncheon at St. Peter’s College March 16. The event was sponsored by SPC Campus Ministry.
Poilièvre , 81, is the founder of STR8 UP, an organization that assists young men and women leaving gangs and criminal lifestyles. It has helped more than 450 former gang members who wanted to change their lifestyles. Many have returned to high school and university or enrolled in trade and parenting programs. Others have completed rehabilitation and addiction recovery programs, and received counselling and psychiatric assistance.
In 2008, Poilièvre was awarded the Order of Canada in recognition of his community work.
STR8 UP came about more or less by accident 17 years ago, Poilièvre commented. He was working with the First Nations community in his ministry when he was approached by two people who wanted to leave their gangs, but did not know how. He realized that people joined gangs because they were seeking friendships, but the relationships in gangs were centred around power and control where members were subject to behaviour that was abusive, destructive and alienating.
With a small group of former gang members in Saskatoon, Poilièvre worked with the larger community to develop a strategy for helping people leave gangs. Their ideas developed into STR8 UP, which helps people begin new lives by promoting positive relationships and encouraging honesty and humility.
The organization rejects the notion of labelling people “good” or “bad,” recognizing that lifestyles may be the outcome of addictions and abusive backgrounds. STR8 UP does not recruit members because it doesn’t want to compete with gangs, who would respond with violence.
Gangs used to solve problems with their fists, Poilièvre noted, and later they fought with baseball bats, followed by pipes and knives. The weapon of choice today is the gun. Poilièvre has buried 14 young men who took their own lives or who were shot or stabbed, or were killed in car accidents as a result of police chases.
Devan Napope, 30, of Saskatoon, a STR8 UP member and spokesperson, told the luncheon group that he came from a background of rejection, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse. He was abandoned by his father and raised by a mother and grandmother who were both alcoholics and had few parenting skills. He did not like the lifestyle, but it was all he knew, and it led to some bad decisions that led, in turn, to incarceration by the age of 12. In total, he has spent eight years in prison.
“From the day I was born, I did not know why God put me here,” he said. “My life started before I was born, but I do not want to look at the past. I did not ask to be put into this struggle I see everyday around me. I did not ask to be born into a skin colour I would be hated for. I did not ask for addictions, violence and welfare. They were there. It seemed, in all of this, my fate was sealed. It took me years to realize I had to get out of that lifestyle. I had to change my ways.”
Healing is the focus of STR8 UP, Poilièvre remarked. Members are informed about the meaning of positive relationships and are encouraged to begin a journey in which they find themselves where they are at in life, and not where they wish to be. Addicts become locked into addictions that keep them in their past and hopelessness. Healing is a process, and STR8 UP has the goal of helping people to begin anew with courage and hope.
People of all backgrounds have entered STR8 UP, Poilièvre said. Many have told him they are atheists, agnostics, Christians, or are committed to indigenous culture. Every person is spiritual, he stressed, even those who claim to be atheists. It is important to have a positive spirituality that fosters honesty and humility. The opposite is arrogance.
The majority of STR8 UP members are of indigenous or Métis descent and live in cities and communities in the three Prairie provinces. Many have not completed high school, and most live in poverty, in neighbourhoods where there is high drug use and gang activity.
Most STR8 UP members grew up in households where there was violence, and have come to understand destructive lifestyles as the norm. They struggle with mental health issues, and all of them have been involved with the young offender system, or the adult correctional or federal penitentiary system. Most have low self-esteem, and all have been members of street gangs.
Members of STR8 UP must write an autobiography and meet five conditions: walk away from their gangs, address their addictions, work at being honest, learn to be humble, and dedicate four years of healing to STR8 UP.
Members of STR8 UP have given some 2,000 presentations across the Prairie provinces. They have addressed healing and sharing circles, various workshops, treatment centres, schools, reserves, churches, educational and community agencies, provincial and federal prisons, and young offender centres.