Drug trafficking, assault, robbery and prostitution are not usually issues associated with Greater Victoria’s West Shore.
But underneath issues such as the Colwood Crawl and its booming population, youth gangs are becoming an increasing problem in the western communities.
“A lot of people don’t realize what’s happening on the streets of Victoria … It’s a significant issue,” said Mia Golden, co-ordinator of the crime reduction and exploitation diversion (CRED) program with the Pacific Centre Family Services Association on Goldstream Avenue.
“Often youth gangs are thought of as nothing, just a bunch of kids doing silly things. But every youth gang has the potential to become a significant issue.”
As part of the CRED program, Golden helps youth entrenched in gangs leave that lifestyle, and provides prevention and mentorship to youth who are vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal and gang activities. Originally started in 2012, the program is modelled after the Wraparound anti-gang program in Surrey.
Over the past six years, Golden has seen her case load balloon from between 30 to 40 youth to 73 now involved in gangs throughout Greater Victoria, 35 of whom are specifically from the West Shore and Sooke areas. However, there are “considerably more” youth involved in gangs that she is aware of but are not accessing support.
Not only are there more youth involved, but they’re starting from a young age. Before, Golden was seeing youth between the ages of 14 to 19 involved with gangs, but now youth as young as 11 years old are becoming entrenched in that lifestyle.
Youth gangs often begin as a group of teenagers getting together and partying, but can quickly escalate to drug dealing, extortion, robberies, thefts and assaults.
Most recently, a youth gang called the West Coast Goat F***ers (WCGF) roamed the streets of the West Shore and were involved in drug dealing, theft, robberies, extortion and assault. At the height of its existence, the gang had more than 20 members and were responsible for more than 200 police files in 2013.
Currently, there are at least two youth gangs specifically operating on the West Shore that are dealing drugs and weapons, Golden said. However, that number can often change, as many youth gangs are unorganized and dissolve in a matter of weeks, months or years, usually as a result of disputes between members.
But it’s the allure of gang lifestyle that often pulls youth back in and one that could lead to being recruited by older, more organized gangs. For example, a number of youth from the WCGF were recruited by the Victoria gang, the Nortenos.
But gang life isn’t as glamorous as what is seen in movies, and dispelling the myths of gangs is the goal of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit’s End Gang Life.
“[They] think they have lots of money and material things. It may seem that way, but the reality is … a lot of these kids get in over their head and owe a debt to whoever their boss is and they never pay it back,” said Sgt. Brenda Winpenny, spokesperson for the unit. “They think they’re feared and respected wherever they go, but in all reality rival gang members are always trying to take out other gang members from the trade.”
Older gangs begin recruiting youth by developing a relationship with them through social media – called boyfriending – before encouraging youth to meet up with them at parties and luring them with the promise of alcohol, drugs and sex. Often they will get youth addicted to drugs, which makes them easier to manipulate.
Once in gangs, they get youth to do their “dirty work,” said Golden – work that often includes dealing drugs, weapons trafficking and recruiting girls and boys as young as 12 to 14 for prostitution. Some youth are tasked with collecting debts, which often means assaulting someone.
Working part-time with the program, Golden feels like she’s strapping a band-aid on a wound that’s already festering.
That’s why the association has applied to the provincial and federal governments to increase funding for the program to $130,000 for 2018/19 to bring Golden up to full-time hours, and add another full-time and part-time co-ordinator to work with youth.
Funding would allow Golden to increase prevention, by going into middle schools to do presentations about the dangers of being in a gang.
“A lot of it is who intervenes first, is it the supports or is it the recruiters? It’s critical,” she said. “I’m not able to do prevention pieces, which means in five years, we’re going to see an even bigger issue if there aren’t proper interventions put in place. We’re always playing catch up, we’re always behind the eight-ball rather than getting in front of it.”
For more information about the CRED program visit pacificcentrefamilyservices.org.