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Former Winnipeg gang member urges at-risk youth to make positive change

A Winnipeg woman who was formerly incarcerated wants the four youth recently sentenced in a stabbing at a downtown library to know that change is possible in their lives.

On Tuesday, the fourth and final sentencing took place in a Winnipeg courtroom for a stabbing attack at the Millennium Library in December 2022 that took the life of 28-year-old Tyree Cayer. The four charged were between the ages of 14 and 16 when the incident took place.

At each of the four sentencing hearings, Tania Cayer, the mother of Tyree Cayer, made a heartfelt plea to each of the youth to change their lives around for the better when they are released from custody.

That’s something that is within reach for those youth, according to Tania Ross.

Ross, a former gang member who spent 20 years in prison, is living proof that finding the right path is possible.

“Me, I spent 20 years in prison. I was CFS, prison, young offenders centre, and the right people came into my path to help me,” Ross told Global News.

Ross says at one point, she had accepted that she would die in prison, but her pivotal moment came when she connected with an elder while incarcerated and confronted her childhood trauma. She says that is always possible for any youth on a destructive path.

“I just want to send a positive message for these youth that are getting sentenced for manslaughter, second-degree murder – They’re still young enough to change their lives. This is that opportunity. They’re going to go to prison, they’re going to go to spend some years in custody, this is their time right now to like really reflect and take responsibility for their actions,” she said.

“They took a life, that’s the ultimate. (I want to tell them) to go in there and really dig deep into that childhood trauma. To get out and give back to your community. You can do it, you’re still young enough to have a life, man. You want to die in prison? I don’t think you want to die in prison. You want to be out and make memories with your family, you can do this.”

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Ross now gives back to her community through motivational speaking and working with at-risk youth at a healing lodge. She says it wasn’t an easy journey getting here, and it takes a lot of strength and courage for youth to take that first step.

“I just didn’t wake up one day and be like, ‘I’m changed’. It took tears, it took digging deep into the black hole, going to segregation, being locked up in the hole, all those journeys and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and those boys can too. Those girls can too,” she said.

Ross says she would also like to see more people with lived experience working with young offenders.

“There’s always need for more resources, need for more programming and it sounds like such a broken record, however – we need to be hiring the right people – like straight up. We need to be hiring people with lived experience,” Ross added.

“The people that I have met with lived experience have that passion so much more. Because they were there, they went through it, they lived it.”

Ross has a message she wants to send to youth walking down the difficult path she once did.

“Forgive yourself, I know you feel like you’re unworthy and nobody loves you. Forgive yourself, pray every day and dig deep, find an elder, connect with that elder,” she added.

“You will have a good life. Once you take responsibility, you can get out and give back to your communities instead of taking from it.”

High demand for youth supports

Organizations and programs working to help youth find that right path say demand is high.

Kerri Koblun is the senior program manager for COACH, a program run by The Link Youth & Family Supports that helps re-integrate youth into the school system.

“There is a huge need for it,” Koblun told Global News.

“I think you could easily make a few more campuses and they would be full, because we do have to turn some kids away because we only have so many spots, each program takes 16 youth and families.”

Koblun says there are numerous barriers that can prevent youth from taking that crucial first step in reaching out for help, including poverty, addiction, and trauma. But she says she’s witnessed numerous success stories through programs at The Link.

“I’ve seen many really great strides — going back to school, graduating high school, and then there are youth who might just get their first job, some still work here at The Link, so I think there are lots of great success stories and I hope to see many, many more,”

Koblun says taking that first step, though, is critical.

“What I usually say to youth that are struggling all the time is, as long as you are here and you are here and you are sacred, there is a reason, and so I want them to take that first step,” she said.

“We’ll meet you where you’re at and we’ll guide you along the way and we’ll walk with you and be on your journey and we’re honoured to do that.

“Just show up at the door. Just show up. That’s the first step.”

&copy 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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