The gangs have names such as Indian Posse and Redd Alert.
Their members tap recruits as young as 10 to peddle crack cocaine. Beatings and drive-by shootings have become their calling cards as RCMP from the Hobbema detachment issue almost daily news releases about violence at a cluster of reserves south of Edmonton.
"We think it was always simmering there somewhat because we would get complaints, but it never boiled over," RCMP Constable Darrel Bruno said.
"Then, all of a sudden, people got more and more aggressive toward each other with regard to these gangs."
Hobbema is the community at the hub of four native reserves -- Samson, Montana, Ermineskin and Louis Bull -- where a staggering list of social ills plagues the 12,000 people who live on them.
The unemployment rate is more than 80 per cent. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. The suicide rate is high. Child-welfare caseloads have swelled 59 per cent between 2000 and 2004.
The RCMP caseload jumped 68 per cent. Constable Bruno, a 22-year veteran of the force, said young people in Hobbema are influenced by peer pressure and end up in gangs in place of the family. He came to Hobbema 7½ years ago, but he spent his childhood on the Samson reserve.
"Back then," he said of his youth, "I remember it being relatively quiet. I remember the elders had a lot of respect. When they spoke, you listened. That's gone by the wayside now."
This is the bumpy road that Canada's natives are travelling. There is another road that wasn't taken that offered a vastly different future. It still has a certain allure for Canadians who observe the dismal conditions in native communities and wonder whether radical change isn't needed.
In 1969, the newly elected government of Pierre Trudeau proposed such a radical break in a slim policy statement that proposed undoing the link between the Crown and Canada's native peoples that had existed for more than 200 years. Ottawa wanted to end the separate status of natives, abolish treaties and allow the sale of reserves.
Under the policy in this unofficial white paper, natives would have become full citizens of Canada without federal government guarantees to protect their lands or identity or to sustain their standard of living. The federal Department of Indian Affairs would be dismantled within five years and, after that, the provinces would be expected to treat natives as non-natives.
One prominent leader called the policy "cultural genocide" but Jean Chrétien, who was then the minister of Indian Affairs, defended it. "Canada cannot seek the just society and keep discriminatory legislation on its books," he said.
Native leaders were surprised and angered by the proposals because they didn't reflect the previous year's consultations. (In fact, an original document advocating the sort of native involvement on display today at a first ministers meeting in Kelowna, B.C., was heavily rewritten by a senior policy adviser in the Prime Minister's Office.) Mr. Chrétien fought for the white paper despite the evidence that native leaders hated it. In July, 1969, he met 30 leaders of the Union of Ontario Indians in Toronto and listened to their complaints about his department.
As he left the two-hour meeting, he exploded.
"They don't like the department and I proposed to phase out the department and then they want to keep it," he said.
A few days later, he pleaded his case for a radical break from the past in an article in The Globe and Mail. "Many will criticize but few will defend the present system," the future prime minister said. "The persistent control of other peoples' lives is ruinous to them and futile for government."
Assimilation wasn't a new idea.
Indeed, people around Hobbema say that the government's desire for "equality" is to blame for many of the problems they are facing.
They point to the legacy of residential schools, set up by the federal government in partnership with religious organizations, which were designed to assimilate aboriginal children into "white" society.
About 100,000 children attended these schools over the past century or so -- about 100 schools were operating at any one time.
Among them were the parents of the troublemakers around Hobbema who were yanked from their homes and in many cases suffered physical, mental and even sexual abuse, before most residential schools were closed in the mid-1970s.
That system stole an important component of family values -- parenting, according to the elders.
"A lot of people that did come back lost that sense of belonging, sense of identity, loss of culture, language," Constable Bruno said. "A lot of them feel that is part of the problems we're dealing with now. Then, when people understand that, they have a better understanding of what we're dealing with here."
Yesterday, the federal government offered $2-billion in reparations to former students and their children. At the same time, Hobbema's 32-member detachment learned that it would get nine more officers.
Last year, the detachment handled an average of 292 cases an officer. That compared with an Alberta average of 116 cases an officer and the national caseload of 66 cases an officer. Last year, the Hobbema RCMP received 899 complaints of assault, up from 490 in 2000. Last year it handled 105 drug charges, up from 36 in 2000.
About half of the band members who live around Hobbema are under 18 and the vast majority are under 30, with a lot of time on their hands.
But Hobbema needs more than more cash and cops to cure what ails it, according to Mel Buffalo, a member of Samson Cree Nation.
Hobbema sits atop oil deposits that bring in millions of dollars. Trust funds have been set up for the young people on the reserves. At one time, when a person turned 18, they received a windfall of $100,000, but revenues have fallen and so have the amounts paid out.
"Now it's $30,000 or $40,000," Mr. Buffalo said. "I've heard people spend that in three or four days."
Hobbema doesn't need handouts that the government keeps pouring in, Mr. Buffalo said, shaking his head at the flurry of pre-election announcements of more funding for aboriginals.
Hobbema, he said, has a huge potential labour force for the province and the country facing a skills shortage.
"[The government]needs to work with us side by side, hand in hand, to create economic opportunities that would be long term, that will be sustainable. I don't see that happening. I don't see people working toward that kind of stuff," he said.
"You'd think with all the money there wouldn't be a problem," added Mr. Buffalo, who is also president of the Indian Association of Alberta. "But it just goes to show you that money doesn't solve the problem."
Harold Cardinal was just 24, and the youngest-ever president of the Indian Association of Alberta, when the Chrétien white paper was issued. Initially, he was delighted at the prospect of the demise of the much-hated Indian Affairs bureaucracy but he also accused Ottawa of trying to "exterminate" aboriginals by abdicating treaties.
"This is the one thing that Canadians will have to accept and recognize that we are full citizens but we also possess special rights," he said. By the end of the year, he had published The Unjust Society, a white-hot criticism of what he saw as a policy of assimilation. He summed up the government's approach: "The only good Indian is a non-Indian."
The bestselling book introduced non-native Canadians to life behind what Mr. Cardinal called "the buckskin curtain." Equally important, however, the battle cry against the white paper marked the beginning of a new generation of sophisticated native leadership.
"It was a watershed moment for the aboriginal community," Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview. "That was a real catalyst."
A few years after the white paper appeared, the political and legal landscape of aboriginal affairs had changed beyond recognition. Court decisions established the "aboriginal rights" that Ottawa had sought to deny, meetings between cabinet ministers and aboriginal leaders became commonplace and by 1982, aboriginal and treaty rights were enshrined in the Charter of Rights.
The white paper is little more than an historical artifact now with its prescriptions thoroughly outmoded. But some of the assertions from 36 years ago retain their power.
"The separate legal status of Indians and the policies which have flowed from it have kept the Indian people apart from and behind other Canadians," the document said. "Many Indians, both in isolated communities and in cities, suffer from poverty."
Mr. Fontaine acknowledges the truth of these statements. There is, he said, a desperate shortage of good housing in native communities and more than 100 reserves live under a boil-water advisory. In addition, suicides are much more prevalent on reserves, and incarceration rates for aboriginals eclipse those of non-natives.
What would conditions be like if Mr. Chrétien had succeeded in pushing through his white paper? It's a bit of a parlour game and the answers aren't straightforward. But Boyce Richardson, an Ottawa writer and filmmaker who has chronicled native issues for decades, said there is nothing in Canada's history to suggest that assimilation would have worked. "The Indians are not going to go away, they never have gone away," he said.
Natives left without treaty rights and the protection of the Indian Act most certainly would have migrated to cities, likely with disastrous consequences.
"It would have left a lot of people for a short period of time -- who know whether it's 10 or 20 years? -- to make the adjustment from a northern, rural lifestyle to an urban centre," said Murray Hamilton, program co-ordinator at the Gabriel Dumont Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.
"There's a very distinct possibility that some of the social-economic situations that we're seeing now would have been accentuated."
There are signs that life is about to turn around in Hobbema.
This week, orientation sessions began with the 200 people between the ages of 12 and 18 who signed up for the Community Cadet Corps program. The program, which is being adopted from one successfully launched in 1996 in Saskatchewan, teaches leadership skills and requires community service and school attendance. Where it has been adopted, crime rates have dropped and cadets have performed better in school.
It's the kind of program that gives Koren Lightning-Earle hope.
The 27-year-old law student left the Samson reserve last year to study at the University of Alberta. But the trouble at Hobbema isn't far from her mind.
"There are some programs running but we need more," she explained. "The youth are bored, restless and are looking for something. As a community we need to provide that something, whether its sports, arts, cultural programs, more after-school programs, clubs, anything."
Ms. Lightning-Earle, who has friends and family members who have killed themselves, said she had the benefit of supportive parents. She also knew she had to finish high school in order to seize opportunities.
"I don't think I am better than anyone," she said. "I had the same temptations that everyone has. Some days I made bad choices and some days I made good choices, but I was fortunate that the good choices outweighed the bad, that I ended up where I am today."
Now the people around Hobbema are insisting that it's time for governments to make the right choices.