Odd Squad talks drugs, gangs with Northern youth

Odd Squad talks drugs, gangs with Northern youth
Left to right, Cst. Doug Spencer, Sgt. Toby Hinton and Sgt. Mark Steinkampf of the Vancouver police give Hay River and Fort Smith youth the real dirt on drugs and gang violence. Photo by Renee Francouer.

The overall message from Odd Squad Productions to students at Diamond Jenness high school in Hay River and Paul W. Kaeser high school in Fort Smith was crystal clear: a life of drugs and gangs is a dead-end road.

Odd Squad, a 16 year-old charity out of Vancouver composed of police officers and volunteers, aims to educate and motivate youth to make drug and crime-free choices for healthy futures.

Sgt. Mark Steinkampf, Sgt. Toby Hinton and Cst. Doug Spencer of the Vancouver police talked about the devastating effects of high-risk behaviour last week to Grades 7-12 students, presenting a graphic video featuring real-life accounts from drug addicts and gang members, many whom have since been gunned down or overdosed.

“You may be wondering why these people let us videotape them or use their photos,” Steinkampf said to the crowd of silent youth in Fort Smith. “They told us it’s because they don’t want anyone else to end up like them.”

The video showed grim snapshots of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area known for its criminal activity and overwhelming poverty, where the officers spend most of their work hours.

One subject described how her heroin addiction led to deformities in her arms because she would pick holes in her skin, thinking there were bugs under her flesh.

Another tearily told audiences how drugs robbed her of “everything…friends, family, finishing school,” and that she feels “hopeless, without a future.”

Yet another clip features an interview with a gang member who said he doesn’t know where he will be in five years – “probably dead.” He was gunned down by a rival gang member just weeks after the interview.

“Every community has drugs,” Hinton said. “The younger a person engages in drug use, the quicker the brain rewires to addiction. The more information you have, the less inclined you’ll be to make bad decisions.”

Hinton noted that while gangs are not a pressing concern in the smaller communities of the NWT, Northern youth can easily be drawn into the fast-paced lifestyle of drugs and money when they leave for school or other ventures that take them into larger urban areas in the south.

“Until we educate them, kids are naive and they don’t know what they’re getting into,” Hinton said. “Our message is to give them the tools to have healthy lifestyles and to make good decisions, to take care of themselves and deal with trauma in their lives not by masking it with drugs, but by talking about it.”

Daniel Wiltzen, 14, of Fort Smith said the presentation was a “huge eye-opener.”

“That’s real life right there, what they were showing us. I don’t ever want to get into anything like that. That’s just crazy,” he said.

Jon Labine, 14, added the Odd Squad gave “a very forward and interesting” lecture. “It was sad; those were real people in the photos.”

The Odd Squad also presented to parents and the Fort Smith community at large last Thursday evening at Uncle Gabe’s Friendship Centre.

The organization was previously in the North in 2012, bringing its message to Inuvik and Aklavik.

The Odd Squad traveled to Hay River and Fort Smith this year after being approached by Cst. Kyle Hammond of Hay River’s RCMP detachment.

Hammond had watched the National Film Board of Canada’s 1999 police documentary Through a Blue Lens as a high school student in BC. The film featured footage shot by the Odd Squad.

“The film had an impact on him,” Spencer said. “He’s a young constable, he wants to make a difference with the kids he’s working with, so he called us up and here we are.”

Odd Squad has conducted over 15,000 presentations, reaching more than 38,000 kids directly.

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