Rob Hurley wants to help clean up the mess he made when he introduced the Native Syndicate into Thunder Bay.
The 27-year-old is a former gang member, and says he’s changed a lot since his days with the notorious street gang.
For one, he’s a father and says he feels proud of his current efforts of trying to prevent other teenagers from making the same mistakes he did.
Hurley, who has since moved from Ontario to Saskatchewan, joined the Native Syndicate when he was about 18-years-old.
He had informally been with the gang since he was 16 years old.
He and the gang members felt invincible, cocky and always believed they were a step ahead of the police. He says he was with the gang because it gave him a sense of belonging, and eventually the gang became what he believed to be his family.
“I didn’t have anybody to look up to,” he says, reflecting on his days with the gang.
“I felt like I had real friends and a real family. That’s how they treated me. I felt like I had filled that void. My father wasn’t around when I was a kid so I felt like that void was filled. I felt somewhat complete.”
The profits weren’t bad either.
The Regina-based gang could bring in anywhere from one quarter to half a million dollars a year. He says they sold everything including marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs.
Hurley says they wanted to expand and set up a chapter in his home province of Ontario.
Thunder Bay was a perfect spot because it was far enough away from any main police branch, and there were no other gangs to contend with.
Hurley is no longer in Thunder Bay, but the gang he was a part of still is; and the Native Syndicate is one of three gangs with significant representation in the city.
“I had helped to start something by taking the Native Syndicate from (Regina) and start it out (in Thunder Bay),” Hurley says.
“I had a helping hand in that. I wanted to try and redeem what I had done. I told the Thunder Bay Police Service straight up that I helped to create the problem so now I want to give you a solution to prevent it from spreading.”
Thunder Bay Police Service Sgt. Neil Herman first joined the gang unit in the ‘90s.
He says the culture of gangs has changed. Members used to wear their colours with pride and wouldn’t think twice about boasting to an officer.
But over time, it appears that street gangs have gained some street smarts. The street gangs running in Thunder Bay have taken a page from the organized crime playbook. Today, these street gangs focus more on profits, and less on a proud display of gang colours and symbols.
Advertising that you’re in a gang isn’t good business anymore, he says, and today’s street gangs understand that.
“It used to be random violence, so there wasn’t much business point to be in a gang,” Herman says.
“It was an eye-opener for me to come back and see. It’s a little bit more organized. Like anything, gangs have advanced with the times.
“It used to be that generally the people we use to deal with were proud that they were in a gang and openly displaying paraphernalia. Now you get a lot of denying the gang even exists, let alone that they are involved in the gang.
They may keep their colours on their person but they don’t always wear it.”
Herman says gangs are typically made up of young 17 year olds but now Thunder Bay’s main three gangs, one of them being the Native Syndicate, have members that are in their 40s.
Traditionally, Thunder Bay has had a number of gangs come from Winnipeg.
Herman says that too has changed.
Toronto and Montreal-based gangs have started to show up more in Thunder Bay. Herman says they can sell drugs at a higher price the farther north they go.
While it’s not a major change, Herman says it’s big enough that police have noticed.
But for the most part, the gangs in Thunder Bay have been established for years.
“They haven’t really gone away but we’re having success in particularly with the Native Syndicate,” he says.
“I don’t know how you want to judge success. We always want to err on the side of caution. We never want to take for granted or think we’ve won. You’re not going to eradicate these gangs from your communities I think. That’s a dangerous assumption to make because you become complacent.”
He says it’s better to compare to cities of similar size and location to get a good indication if a city’s crime is running rampant.
If that’s the measuring bar, Herman says Thunder Bay is doing OK because –for example – there’s no drive by shootings.
Herman admits that he would like to think that it’s entirely because of the police presence, but he admits there are probably other circumstances on why bullets don’t fly in the city.
He says it helps that Thunder Bay established a gang unit early to help prevent these types of crimes from happening.
He says some police departments weren’t even prepared to say there was a gang problem, never mind establishing a specific unit to handle it.
The strategy police use to try to keep people away from gangs is teach others who then go on to spread that message.
“It’s not like TV where we’re just putting bad guys in jail and that’s our only concern, and we’re high fiving people,” he says.
“The problems are more deep rooted.
“They joined the gang because they needed a sense of belonging. The core issue is they didn’t get that belonging at home that they needed as a teenager. Until that’s fixed, there’s still going to be people in gangs.”
Follow Jeff Labine on Twitter @Labine_reporter