BY OTIENA ELLWAND, EDMONTON JOURNAL
HOBBEMA — There are still a few fire-ravaged homes and gang names spray painted across murals in Samson Cree Nation, one of four First Nations that make up Hobbema. But behind this facade, improvements are being made as the code of silence here starts to crack.
Const. Perry Cardinal, 48, a school resource officer, and his brother, Const. Pernell Cardinal, 39, an investigator, both work at the Maskwacis (Hobbema) detachment, where they are helping change the community’s perception of the RCMP.
They champion crime prevention by following the motto “be around when you’re not needed.” That’s why they attend funerals, community feasts, round dances and church in Hobbema, even though they both live in Wetaskiwin, nearly 17 kilometres away. (Hobbema will officially change its name Jan. 1 to Maskwacis, which translated means Bear Hills.)
At one time, the RCMP said there were as many as 13 gangs operating in Hobbema with about 300 active members. Now, they estimate the number of gangs has dropped to five, with between 150 and 180 active members in a community of 15,000.
“People are getting tired of that,” said Perry, who’s been with the detachment for seven years. “People are speaking out, enough of this. You’ve got to get tired of looking behind you all the time.”
When Pernell arrived in Hobbema in 2007 as part of an enforcement team to disrupt gang activity, he said he was “astonished” by the lack of pedestrians and children playing on the street, something he’s since seen change.
“There was quite a bit of graffiti and boarded-up houses; a community in distress is pretty much what it looked like,” he said. “I remember the hair standing up on my neck, thinking, it’s a challenge here.”
The community still struggles with gangs and other issues like addictions and domestic violence, but the Cardinals say it’s a far cry from what it used to be.
It helps there are now 42 officers, five of whom are aboriginal, working out of the Maskwacis detachment, with two elders and a victim services section.
“I don’t fault members in the past, because at one time, I think Hobbema was a little understaffed and under-policed,” said Pernell. “They were probably more like firemen or bouncers than policemen, just going call to call to call. People didn’t get that client satisfaction.”
Now, the community is getting a lot more face time with RCMP officers, especially Perry, who visits one of the local schools nearly every day.
He believes educating young people, being a good role model and building partnerships in the community is key to preventing them from joining gangs.
“It’s not just a visibility thing, you have to educate these kids, too, on gang stuff, home and personal safety, bullying,” he said. They also teach the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which provides students with skills to deal with peer pressure and to make positive decisions.
“Instead of going on the law side, we focus on the health side; the dangers of using drugs that you don’t know,” Perry said.
He and Pernell understand the challenges these young people face, having grown up with limited means in the small community of Fort Vermilion, where his parents had eight children to feed. They also understand the need for compassion after experiencing their own personal tragedy in 2011 when their 18-year-old nephew, Scott Lizotte, died of exposure in Grande Prairie.
The relationship between the community and the RCMP started to shift after two young children were shot, the brothers say.
In 2008, 23-month-old Asia Saddleback was struck and injured by a stray bullet at her family home. But it still took nearly two years before anybody was charged.
In 2011, five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird was shot and killed while sleeping in his bed. Six months later, three youths were arrested and have since pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Pernell responded to the call the night Ethan was shot.
“I don’t think a day goes by it doesn’t enter my mind. I pass the residence every day, to and from work, we carry that burden as well,” he said. “There might have been a time when this would have gone unsolved, but for the community involvement. We use the media to let people know that the police are still working on these files, they’re still active investigations.”
In November, when three men were charged with first-degree murder for the 2011 shooting death of Ethan’s aunt, 23-year-old Chelsea Yellowbird, a relative of the family said the charges wouldn’t have come about without co-operation. “There are other deaths that remain unsolved in our community and (the Yellowbird family) encourage people to bring forward information to help clean up our community with the violence that has plagued us,” said relative John Crier at a news conference.
The progress is gradual and not always easy to see by just passing through.
“Slowly (we’re) getting people to believe that we are here to help,” Perry said, “and slowly the information highway opened up a lot more.”