The sociology of crime in Regina
What is the source of Regina’s high crime rate?
As I entered the modest apartment in the heart of the Cathedral neighbourhood, the first thing that hit me was something resembling cognitive dissonance.
In the hallway outside, there was dust and dirt packed into the corners of the old hardwood floors, which creaked and cracked with every step. Sound from the surrounding tenants seemed to flow freely through the walls, as if they were not there. The chipped paint on the walls showed signs of age; the doors had rust on the hinges.
When I entered David’s apartment, it was more of the same. The old hardwood floors were warped, the paint on the walls looked dirty and aged. The refrigerator and other utilities provided by his landlord also looked out of date.
But various luxury items littered the small one-bedroom living space. A relatively new plasma TV stood on top of an old and worn coffee table, while hundreds of DVDs, video games, a new blue-ray player, and various videogame consoles were scattered around the floor. It reminded me of a shrine.
His small closet, the only one in his home, was so full of brand name and designer clothes that he had started to pile them up on the ground. Piles of new hats and shoes were scattered around the apartment.
David, who asked to have his name changed to protect his identity, has been selling drugs for most of his teenage and adult life. As a young Aboriginal man growing up in Regina’s infamous North Central area, poverty and stereotypical labelling were his constant companions growing up.
“My family was very poor when I was growing up,” he said. “My dad wasn’t around, and my mom had to work really hard to take care of me and my brothers. She worked all the time, but we still didn’t have much.”
“There were a lot of nights when we would go to bed feeling hungry,” he said. “And when we did eat as a family, there wasn’t a lot of food. As the youngest child, I always got hand-me-downs from my brothers; most of our stuff was second-hand too.
“I hated it. I remember my mom crying at the dinner table when she was calculating the bills. I remember being cold in the wintertime. I remember hating how we lived and wanting to break out of it so badly.”
Although Canada is widely regarded as having one of the best standards of living of any country in the world, millions of Canadian citizens, like David and his family, live in poverty, barely able to get by.
For many of them, living an impoverished life becomes intolerable, and in David’s case, it becomes an impetus for living a life of crime in order to escape the burdens that come with living day to day.
“I wanted to get out of that life more than anything,” he said. “I wanted to make a better life for me and my family. I wanted to make my mom happy.”
For David, selling drugs became a lucrative enterprise at a young age.
“It was the best way I thought I could make money when I was in high school,” he said. “Most of my friends at that age didn’t have jobs yet; they just lived at home. For me that wasn’t really an option, so I turned to selling drugs.”
David’s story is a familiar one. Individuals from every impoverished area around the world have similar issues, and are desperate to escape them.
“Crime is ultimately people looking for solutions to problems,” Robert Biezenski, a U of R sociology professor, told me. “Any one of us could be in that position. Life gives you problems, living gives you problems. If you can’t solve those problems the conventional way, you have to look for unconventional alternatives.”
Biezenski has been teaching sociology and criminology at the U of R for over 20 years. As he puts it, criminal activity is most often the result of sociological factors, such as poverty and discrimination, rather than the by-product of bad people doing bad things.
“Crime is presented in our media in individual terms,” he said. “When a crime is splashed all over the front page of a newspaper, it is always this individual who is demonized, this individual who is a terrible person, and so forth. But from a sociological perspective, it is not about the individual, it is about the social situations that they find themselves in.”
As the story of David and his family illustrates, desperate times call for desperate measures. Although David has spent a large portion of his life selling drugs, an act many critics would call reprehensible, it appears to be an act of desperation. He was looking for a way out a life that put and incredible burden on the lives of himself and of his family.
“I never told my mom what I was doing,” David said. “I just told her I had a real job. But the money I brought home helped a lot, both me and her.”
The stats on North Central are well known. It’s Regina’s most impoverished neighbourhood, and it’s also home to the city’s highest crime rates.
“Many people turn to crime because, frankly, it’s the only option they have,” Biezenski explained. “The only way to deal with crime is to recognize that it is a social event, it has social causes, and therefore you have to take social measures to deal with it.”
Problems within the Aboriginal community
Statistics Canada has also indicated that Regina’s First Nations population has a higher rate of criminal activity and poverty. This leads many individuals to incorrectly assume there is something about Regina’s Aboriginals themselves that creates this propensity towards crime – that there must be something wrong with the people, not society.
It is a stereotype David is familiar with.
“I see the way some people look at me,” he said. “It’s like they’re scared of me. Not everyone looks that way, but a lot of white people do.”
Although the stats do point towards Aboriginal communities as a source of crime, Biezenski is quick to point out that this is not a reflection of the Aboriginal people, rather it is the result of what he and other sociologist call “cultural genocide,” and the snowball effect of poverty and labelling that come as a result.
“We need to address the needs of our Aboriginal communities,” he said.
According to Biezenski, this requires a two-pronged attack. This would involve addressing the “material needs” of people in poverty: providing a stable platform for education, addressing racism, and creating more job opportunities, which would make criminal activity unnecessary.
However, addressing the material issue only seems to be one side of the coin. When speaking in the terms of individual people, providing them with large sums of money without addressing the larger social issues would do little to halt the problems within the Aboriginal community; it could very well simply increase it.
In order to stabilize the poorer Aboriginal areas, Biezenski believes we need to address their culture and look at the situation on a larger scale.
“From a sociological point of view, it is not about the individual,” he said. “Everyone needs to feel like they are part of a group larger than themselves. That is what culture does for us. Very few people live out life thinking, ‘I’m only going to look out for number one.’ Most people need to identify with a larger group, with their family, with their community, with their country.
During the late 18th century, Aboriginals throughout Canada were encouraged to assimilate their own culture with the Eurocentric culture of the European settlers. This assimilation process, which was initially propagated as a positive, quickly became a disaster when the Europeans began implementing “compulsory assimilation.”
The settlers set out to “civilize” Aboriginal tribes, demanding the adoption of European languages, Christianity, and styles of education, and displacing Aboriginals throughout the country. The damage was so severe that University of Toronto professor Jean-Paul Restoule has suggested that Canada’s actions violated the United Nations Genocide Convention. However, the UN General Assembly did not adopt the convention until 1948, almost 100 years after the cultural assimilation effort began.
The European attempt to eliminate First Nations culture failed, but it did some damage along the way.
"Although Aboriginal culture survives, it is wounded,” Biezenski said. “Many of them don’t even understand their own history. For many years, they were taught to be ashamed of their culture. They were told that they were ‘ignorant savages who should try to be more like the white man.’
“That is not the way to go. People need to be proud of who they are, their culture, their community’s accomplishments, their people.”
Biezenski believes that is a task only the Aboriginal people are qualified to do. Through projects such as the First Nations University of Canada, First Nations peoples will not only rebuild part of what they lost, but through the reconstruction of their culture, they will earn more self-respect and pride for who they are.
“That has to be the basis,” he explained. “Because if a person has no self-respect, no respect for anything bigger than themselves, than of course they are going to turn to things like crime because they don’t care. They will adopt the attitude, ‘If the outside world doesn’t care about me, then why should I care about anybody out there.’”
The combination of a revitalized culture, and better opportunities for jobs and education is what many sociologists believe would help to reduce the numbers of Aboriginals who turn to crime as a source of income. This would eliminate the problem on a global scale, rather than flooding prisons with new inmates and allowing the problems to persist.
“The problem of poverty [and its connection to crime] is that [it doesn’t] matter where you go,” he said. “For Regina in particular I would argue the additional problem is not the poverty of many Aboriginal people, but the systematic attempt to destroy their culture. You need to address both issues to reduce crime.”
The effect of sub-culture and labelling
Two of the more prominent theories in the world of criminology are subculture theory and labelling theory.
Subculture theory, emerging from collaborative work between several Chicago-area universities in the 1930s, states that people will naturally form groups with each other. Within these groups, individuals will form common beliefs and values. In terms of crime, the development of gangs creates a subculture of criminal activity, where committing crimes can become a method of gaining appreciation by the group. In a situation where people are desperate and feeling forgotten by the rest of society, gangs can play the role of a surrogate family.
“Everybody lives in subcultures,” Biezenski said. “Street gangs are an example. They are probably the simplest subculture out there, where people literally just come together and form a gang.
“These groups generate their own subculture where you have to be part of the gang, you have to show that you are part of the gang. Some of the things that gangs do don’t seem logical in the sense that, ‘I’m going to make a whole bunch of money if I do this.’ Things like vandalism, or getting in fights, don’t seem to have any benefit, but they do. You have to show that you are a tough guy, you have to show that you are prepared to get out there and hit somebody if you want to be accepted in the gang.”
But why violence? Why other forms of crime?
When society denies marginalized groups of opportunities, subculture theory appears to predict that criminal gangs are a natural outcome. If people have no opportunities in society, then they must create their own. Many gang members feel that crime and violence are the only other methods to get things done, and make opportunities for themselves.
David believes that this is true in his case.
“That’s kind of why I started,” he said. “I thought that it would be my best chance to make a better life for myself and my family. I have a lot of friends who do illegal stuff too. I’m surrounded by people who encourage that behaviour as well; it makes it kind of hard to break out, and I’m not sure that I even want to. These people are my friends; to get out of the environment of crime that I’m in, I would have to leave them behind.”
When society labels an individual as a potential criminal, this makes people believe they will become criminals, and they often do. Biezenski believes this is one of many contributing factors to illicit activities among the poor and ethnic minorities, which are the most susceptible groups to illegal endeavours.
“The label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “If you label someone as a criminal, and you see them as a criminal, you treat them as a criminal, then basically you give them no alternative but to act as a criminal.”
Biezenski also says it comes down to a matter of identity. He points to young people, the most susceptible age group to criminal activities, who are still under the influence of adults and authority figures as an example.
“If you are some teenager,” he said. “And you get caught by the police, and you have lawyers, police, judges, parents, assorted other adults all telling you what a terrible person you are, some kids are going to believe it.”
The psychological theory of cognitive dissonance confirms this idea. It states that people will change their actions to align with their personal beliefs. If an individual believes they are a criminal, then they will continue to live a life of crime through their actions.
Labelling also occurs on a larger scale. As we see in everyday conversation, people label one another, not just individually, but also as a group.
“The two groups who get labelled the most are ethnic minorities and the poor,” Biezenski said. “In Regina of course, the Aboriginal population get the worst of this.”
There are a plethora of racist stereotypes surrounding Aboriginal people in Saskatchewan. Although many dismiss these kinds of remarks, and claim that they have little impact on the well-being of Aboriginals in our society, stereotypes have sweeping consequences on the marginalized groups that they are associated with.
“Of course the label has an impact. It means that, first of all, these white men aren’t going to give you a job,” Biezenski said. “Why would they hire someone, who in their minds, is associated with a negative stereotype? So that kind of negative label has continuances.”
According to Biezenski stereotypes themselves cannot hurt anyone, but the snowball effect they create only serves to strengthen the stereotypes themselves and force people into a situation where crime is their only option.
“Subjective definitions have objective consequences,” he said. “If you subjectively define this person as lazy or drunk, then the objective consequence is that you don’t offer them a job, you don’t offer them a chance to become a productive member of society. The result is that they get pushed into being a criminal because they can’t get jobs. So as I say, the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is something that effects the poor, and our Aboriginal population in general.”
As for David, he does not believe that other people’s opinions on aboriginals have lead him to a life of crime. Although he has escaped the poverty of his past, it was done through illegal means, something he claims he does not have any plans to stop in the near future.
Although the provincial government is more than happy to gawk on and on about Saskatchewan’s booming economy, which is often used to implicitly make the claim that Saskatchewan is one of the best places in Canada to live, sociologists like Biezenski believe the opposite is true. For them, the problem begins at the social level. If we can’t take the time to provide an equal platform for all Saskatchewan residents to reach success, than we will continue to have high crime rates, and marginalize our fellow citizens.