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Sitting outside her home in the blue light of dusk, Christie Jebb lights a cigarette with shaking hands. She can't afford to sleep at night any more, she says. She's afraid the gang that has been terrorizing her here on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation reserve will return to finish the job.

In the past three years she has been beaten twice, offered bribes not to testify in court, labelled a rat by members of her community, had all her windows smashed while she slept and seen a neighbour's house burned to the ground. Last week, she was hit with a shotgun blast while standing on her front step.

Ms. Jebb is a target because she dared to stand up to the Indian Posse, one of Canada's largest gangs. In the past five years, aboriginal gangs, as they are classified by the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, have surpassed outlaw motorcycle gangs and Italian organized crime syndicates as the largest single group held in federal prisons, with 536 members serving federal sentences. Ninety per cent of them are doing time on the Prairies, dominated by three established gangs: the Indian Posse, the Native Syndicate and the Warriors.

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Ms. Jebb's ordeal began three years ago when she was brutally beaten by a member of the Indian Posse for refusing to allow him to enter a party. The gang tried to bribe her not to testify, but she refused to bend and her assailant was convicted.

A year ago, another member of the Indian Posse barged into her home, punched her and knocked her unconscious. Once more she went to the police; that case is still awaiting trial. Whenever she went out in her community, she would hear the taunts of "rat" from the gang's legion of members and associates. And one night in January, a group of thugs wearing red masks smashed every window in her house as she lay in bed, terrified.

Two weeks ago, the violence escalated. As she tells the story, she points a finger a few metres down the dirt road that runs between her modest home and the bush, saying that's where the gangsters stood when they opened fire. A group of eight or more, their faces covered by red bandanas, were shouting "Indian Posse" as they approached.

"It was 8:45 p.m., we were sitting outside here, smoking. I saw them coming and told my neighbour to phone the cops. We just stood here. They stopped and they were yelling, 'Indian Posse, let's get her,' " she said. "I saw the gun in the air and then he pulled it down and boom, boom, we felt the pellets hit us. I was too shocked to hit the ground or anything."

Ms. Jebb, 29, was fortunate not to be hurt. The shotgun barrel was sawed off, and fired from far enough away that the pellets stung but didn't break the skin. Her worst fear is that her home will be torched while she sleeps, as happened to a neighbour a year ago.

"The intimidation is really bad," she said.

Spreading westward

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The recent history of aboriginal gangs began when the Indian Posse was formed on the streets of Winnipeg in 1988, followed in 1991 by the Manitoba Warriors. The rival groups clashed in prison, and the necessity of having some gang protection led unaffiliated inmates to found the Native Syndicate in 1994.

All three gangs spread westward from Manitoba as a result of the federal parole system, according to Detective Grant Goulet of the Winnipeg police organized crime unit. Because of their violent behaviour, many of the offenders ended up in Edmonton's maximum-security prison and were released there on parole. A group of notorious Indian Posse armed robbers adopted Edmonton as their new home, and began setting up chapters nearby.

One community, Hobbema, has become the poster reserve for a growing gang problem in recent years. The 12,000-member community, which is home to four Cree reserves, has been racked with gang-related violence and crime, including the disturbing drive-by shooting last month of a 23-month-old girl.

Asia Saddleback was in her home on the Samson Cree reserve, 80 kilometres south of Edmonton, eating dinner when a stray bullet hit the toddler just below the abdomen.

Police suspect the shooting, which was the reserve's 12th gun crime since March, was gang related. An 18-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were charged in connection with the crime.

The little girl has since been released from hospital, but doctors couldn't remove the bullet for fear of causing damage to her spine. Candace Saddleback, the girl's 25-year-old mother, has told reporters she's too scared to return to her reserve. "I've been living there all my life and I'm sorry it took [the shooting of]my daughter ... for people to understand that it's a bad crisis in Hobbema," she said.

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Thirteen gangs are trying to control the drug trade and other illicit activities, including prostitution, in Hobbema. They range from small groups such as the Spoon Crew, a tight-knit group of female cousins, to the powerful Indian Posse.

The Samson reserve is a hotbed of crime because it's the largest of the four reserves, with about 6,500 members. The reserve has also witnessed considerable wealth in its history, reaping energy royalties from its large deposits of oil and natural gas. With the big bucks came increased demand for illegal drugs. The drug of choice on the reserve today is crack cocaine, which is called kona, the Cree word for snow.

However, Hobbema RCMP Corporal Darrel Bruno said it's a "false perception" that everybody on the Samson reserve has money. Unemployment is about 85 per cent.

Many residents feel like prisoners in their own homes.

Trish Simon, a 21-year-old unemployed single mother, rarely lets her six-year-old daughter Chanise outside to play for fear she'll get caught up in a gunfight. Even on a warm spring day, a large playground in a park behind their house is empty.

Ms. Simon, who has several cousins who belong to the Indian Posse, desperately wants to leave the reserve, but she has no money.

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Last month, Ms. Simon moved houses because the last place she lived was constantly being fired at during the night. "We slept on the floor. We didn't want to get hit," she said.

She said while her new home is located in one of Samson's roughest neighbourhoods - she calls it a ghetto - the nights have been quieter.

"So far, so good," Ms. Simon said, as she looked out a front window pierced by two bullet holes. A curfew for anyone 17 and under that was imposed after Asia Saddleback was shot has helped, she added.

She plans to paint over a large tag reading "Indian Po$$e" that was on the front of the small blue house when she moved in. "I need to get that done. People keep coming to the door trying to buy crack," she said.

Ms. Simon, who dreams of one day finishing high school and becoming a teacher, doesn't know whether anything can be done to stop the gang violence for good.

"Too many bad things have happened. These people hate each other. I don't know how you can stop that kind of hate," she said.

Sergeant Patrick Olson of the Manitoba RCMP's gang intelligence unit describes the Indian Posse and Native Syndicate as primarily street gangs - slightly less sophisticated than the Warriors, whose organization and structure are modelled after the Hells Angels. All three gangs, police say, are run by councils of senior members in jail who communicate with the outside world via three-way calling. They make their money primarily from cocaine and prostitution.

Both the Warriors and the Indian Posse are expanding in an effort to become national gangs, Sgt. Olson said. One high-ranking IP member was recently arrested in British Columbia, an area traditionally outside the Posse's turf, wearing a back patch that included a map of Canada, which the police take as a sign of the gang's growing ambition.

"Right now the Indian Posse is a very, very violent street gang. There's many associates that are involved in homicides in the city of Winnipeg, as well as thefts and home invasions. They've really pushed their territory out," Sgt. Olson said.

Court cases in Saskatchewan have been disrupted by IP associates placing a symbolic red bandana on the gallery railing and walking out to intimidate witnesses, he added.

They are armed with guns obtained in home invasions or smuggled from the United States through native bands in Ontario and Quebec that straddle the border, Sgt. Olson said. Their primary source of income is the sale of crack cocaine, which they buy mainly from Asian organized crime groups that move the product through B.C. ports. "It's a quick money-maker for them. It's quick to sell, it's small, it's easy to conceal compared to pounds of marijuana," Sgt. Olson said.

The gangs' connections to reserves and small, northern communities where their membership flourishes are lucrative because of scarcity pricing. In Winnipeg, a rock of crack cocaine sells for $10 to $20. In The Pas, it's $50 to $70 for a rock the same size. Farther north in Thompson, Man., it's $100 a rock, the RCMP says. "It's pretty easy to see how fast you can make money," Sgt. Olson said.

ACTS OF VIOLENT BRAVADO

Gangs are a fact of life on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. The reserve, which sits just across the river from The Pas, a pulp-and-paper town 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, is one of the most prosperous in Manitoba with a casino, hotel, shopping mall and a successful junior hockey team. Still, estimates of unemployment are close to 50 per cent, and for young people with few prospects, the allure of gang life is difficult to resist.

Detective Jerry Nutbrown of the local RCMP said it's quite common for young gang associates to earn $100 a day as drug mules, delivering packages by bicycle to customers who dial the number of a dealer's disposable cellphone. The drugs arrive in The Pas by road from Winnipeg, Saskatoon or Prince Albert, Sask., usually carried by people chosen because they won't be noticed by police. Dealers also hang around the local mall carrying Baggies of crack cocaine in their mouths, with a water bottle close at hand in case they need to swallow the drugs at short notice, he said.

The RCMP say there are 15 or 20 senior Indian Posse members in The Pas and OCN, but each of those members has three or four prospective members, known as strikers, operating beneath him, trying to outdo one another with acts of violent bravado to earn membership in the gang. It's the strikers who hold the drugs and dish out most of the violence, police said.

Chief Glen Ross said a child on the reserve was recently caught carrying $20,000 worth of crack. Another band member who was trying to leave gang life was slain in Winnipeg last year, his Indian Posse tattoos carved from his skin.

Mr. Ross said he hopes the completion of an RCMP detachment on the reserve, expected in the next few weeks, will give the band "that much more of a hammer to curb the violence." But the detachment is off to a rocky start. It was burned to the ground last summer, allegedly by youths who threw a Molotov cocktail, and the RCMP said they believe the fire was ordered by the leadership of the IP.

One of the youths arrested for the fire fought his way out of the RCMP detachment by overpowering a guard. In a further embarrassment for the force, a month later he and another man are alleged to have committed a shocking killing in Saskatchewan, when assailants stormed into a house in Fort Qu'Appelle after a fight in a bar. Witnesses said the men yelled "that'll teach you to mess with the [Indian Posse] before opening fire, killing two people and injuring three.

Mr. Ross, who has been the chief at OCN for a little less than two years, says dealing with the gangs is a priority for his community, second only to the need for more housing.

"It's getting out of hand. Gang kids are carrying most of the social problems that affect our people on their shoulders," he said.

A few years ago, his community banished a number of known gang members, cutting them off from any social assistance or housing and forcing them to leave. They also published a list of the banned gangsters in their newspaper, and anyone who saw them around the reserve was encouraged to call police. Some, including Ms. Jebb, say it's time to revive that practice.

While he speaks of the need to clamp down on crime, Mr. Ross knows increased enforcement will put more aboriginal youth in jail, where they are already overrepresented.

"It means more OCN kids are going to jail, and they'll come out in worse shape. Over the years they'll probably cost more in social services," he said. "When we talk about gangs on OCN I say, 'These are our kids. They're not monsters. All of a sudden we put a gang label on them and they're shootable?' "

The chief said those who join the gang need to feel a part of something, and some feel they're fighting back against a discriminatory system.

"There's pride in the outlaw," he said, "pride in fighting what they see as the government, the enemy."

Guide to gangs

Indian Posse

The Indian Posse was formed on the streets of Winnipeg in 1988 and quickly grew into a large street gang. In addition to the group's base in Winnipeg's north end, it has chapters in Saskatoon, Edmonton and dozens of smaller prairie towns and reserves.

They trade cocaine and weapons across provincial boundaries. They will also import crews to commit violence and quickly leave town before police are aware of their presence.

"The Indian Posse are still just focused on threatening violence and reputation; they haven't evolved as a gang. Native Syndicate, the same thing. Straight thugs," Detective Grant Goulet of Winnipeg police said.

Members earn status in the gang by completing "missions" such as armed robberies, arsons and homicides. The first stage is an IP tattoo, followed by a more senior level known as "arm bars," a large tattoo that reads Indian on one arm and Posse on the other. Senior members will also get a shield tattooed on their neck.

Manitoba Warriors

Described by police as the most sophisticated of the three main gangs, the Manitoba Warriors modelled themselves after the Hells Angels with a three-piece back patch to denote levels of membership, as well as a president and a sergeant-at-arms.

The Warriors are less likely than the other groups to be involved in low-level street crime, and are the smallest in terms of the number of inmates serving in correctional institutions. Their members also mark status levels by tattoos. One ex-member said the day he got a Warriors shield on his shoulder was "the most overwhelming day of [his]life."

Native Syndicate

This gang formed in prison in 1994 as a response to the growth of the Indian Posse and Manitoba Warriors (and later Saskatchewan and Alberta Warriors). Inmates who weren't in either of those gangs felt they needed to protect themselves and banded together. Their members are spread across the Prairies, although their strength is in Saskatchewan and parts of Northern Manitoba.

"They are literally the bottom feeders. Hard-core thug criminals, high propensity for violence, mostly armed-robbery guys," Det. Goulet said.

Members are marked by tattoos, starting with a distinctive NS on the web of the hand between thumb and index finger.

Joe Friesen

AN EX-GANGSTER'S STORY

Crime and brotherhood

Gilbert Genaille came to gang life as a 14-year-old growing up in Winnipeg's inner city. He had been in and out of foster homes since birth as his mother struggled with addiction. He dropped out of Winnipeg's Gordon Bell High School before completing Grade 7, and turned to a life of crime and brotherhood in the Manitoba Warriors.

His first conviction was for aggravated assault on a cab driver. He held a knife to the cabbie's throat and pulled it, he said, because he didn't have the money for the fare.

He spent most of the next 17 years in and out of jail, earning a reputation as one of the toughest members of the Warriors. He has few teeth because he was involved in so many brawls. He was part of the group involved in the Headingley jail riot of 1996, and was moved to Edmonton's maximum-security prison, where he survived being stabbed in the back of the neck.

"What's leading you into the gangs? Everything in society today is for white people," he said. "Everything was taken from us 200 years ago and set up to suit the white people."

Although he said he has given up gang life now that he's 32, married and works as a roofer, he said he would never turn his back on the idea that lies at the heart of the Warriors: standing up proudly as native people.

"They were the most solid type of guys you've ever seen," he said. "Built like Chevy trucks, some of the best gangsters ever."

Joe Friesen

THE MONEY TRAIL

Big profits, modest living

Where does the money go?

Both the RCMP and Winnipeg city police say they've always been somewhat puzzled by the question of where aboriginal gangs spend their profits.

They say they can't rule out the possibility that senior leaders hide funds in offshore accounts, but are surprised to find that most gang members live fairly modest lives.

"Where does it go? That's a huge question," RCMP Sergeant Patrick Olson said. "In some of the traditional organized crime it goes to houses, to cars, whereas that's not an issue here.

"It obviously goes somewhere. It's always there to buy more product, for one thing. But there's a lot of [drug and alcohol]consumption, a lot of abuse. That's why a lot of gang members are kicked out. ... One of the leaders of the Indian Posse said, 'The reason you don't look at us is because we can act and appear almost like a bum on the street. We're overlooked. I don't drive a Mercedes, I don't own a fancy house, but I carry on my business and it goes unnoticed.' "

One former gang member said that at his peak he earned $15,000 a month, much of which he shared with friends and family. The money came and went quickly, he said, but he enjoyed being generous and making others happy.

Joe Friesen

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