Ethan Yellowbird, all of five years old, a member of the Samson Cree Nation in Hobbema, Alta., died early one morning last week from a gunshot wound to the head as he slept. As grief spread through the community, police quickly focused on gangs. But their investigation met resistance, and there were fears of retaliatory shootings.
Unfortunately, Ethan was not the first innocent bystander to be shot during suspected gang-related violence. In April of 2008, Asia Saddleback, just shy of 2, was hit by a bullet during a drive-by shooting on the same reserve; she survived, but the bullet remains near her spine. And just before Christmas, a 15-year-old youth was shot dead.
It's a scenario all too familiar for Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and creator of CeaseFire, a highly successful anti-gang program out of Chicago modelled on Dr. Slutkin's experience with infectious diseases while he worked with the World Health Organization. In his view, violence is a disease. Accordingly, programs can be designed to stop its transmission, and the wider community can be inoculated against the spread of violence, thereby eradicating the disease.
The results speak for themselves: Chicago neighbourhoods affected by chronic gang violence have seen as much as an 80-per-cent reduction in gang-related shootings with the implementation of CeaseFire. The program has been exported to southern Iraq, and is about to be implemented in Cape Town, London and the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. Discussions have even taken place to use a CeaseFire-type model to address the horrific rape epidemic in Congo.
I recently had a chance to discuss this program with Dr. Slutkin while he was in Canada. He believes that a basic set of principles and strategies can be applied to behaviour modification, whether the goal is to stop AIDS transmission, smoking or gang violence. CeaseFire takes a three-pronged approach: detection/interruption of planned violent activity; behaviour change of high-risk individuals; and changing community norms.
First, an assessment of the community is made, in order to select and train suitable community members. This includes violence "interrupters," who seek truces, and outreach workers, who focus on changing the behaviour of high-risk individuals. Many are former gang members eager to help young people avoid a life of violence.
The final component involves changing community attitudes, moving from apathy and fear to actively opposing gang violence. Public messaging, grassroots initiatives and direct involvement of faith-based institutions play a key role here.
During stops in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary, Dr. Slutkin found receptive audiences of government officials, aboriginal and business leaders, community activists, and law-enforcement personnel. Members of Winnipeg's Gang Action Interagency Network, for instance, were interested in learning how to deliver a CeaseFire model to affected neighbourhoods.
In Calgary, discussions took place with staff and volunteers at the Muslim Youth Centre. Mahdi Qasqas, the centre's dynamic young director, envisions adapting Dr. Slutkin's approach to reduce domestic abuse, manage outreach to prisons, and prevent violence associated with extremist ideology. This makes sense, given that CeaseFire's methodology aims to stop the use of violence in settling grievances.
Darren Caul, director of the Alberta Gang Reduction Strategy program, believes CeaseFire "offers a beacon of hope and direction for communities grappling with gang violence." Given the shootings in Hobbema, why not fast-track CeaseFire's implementation and rename it Yellowbird in honour of Ethan?