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Hungry for Identity: VICE News Explores Aboriginal Gangs in Winnipeg

A talk with the VICE producer who braved the roughest streets of Winnipeg to make a riveting documentary about Aboriginal gangs.

In Winnipeg, many First Nations peoples are entrenched in a devastating culture of gang violence, and VICE News took to the streets of the city to figure out why. The result is a 16-minute documentary, every bit as revealing and heartbreaking as you might imagine. VICE is known for their raw and non-sugarcoated reporting style, and the producers on this piece prioritized getting the real story from all perspectives.

Always curious about non-Native media’s forays into Native news, I spoke to the producer, Nilo Tabrizy—a former colleague of mine at NowThis News—about her experience working on the piece.

As an Iranian Canadian you come from an interesting background yourself. A lot of us journalists report on things that we are passionate about or things that strike a chord with our emotions. On a personal level, what drew you to creating this piece?

The Aboriginal community in Canada doesn’t get enough media coverage into the depths of their issues. Even though I grew up in Vancouver and there are reserves within the city, First Nations people are a community I don’t know much about, and of course I want to know more. I’m really drawn to stories that people don’t cover and I’m lucky to be at VICE where we are able to cover stories that are largely ignored by mainstream media.

How much time did you spend reporting in Manitoba?

We spent a week in freezing cold February in Winnipeg and then another week shooting in May.

Source: VICE News

And how big was your crew?

We were a small crew—which was better because the community was hard to get access to, and we wanted to build trust—especially being that none of us were First Nations or Metis.

That brings me to my next question. How did you find these gang members to interview?

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Facebook. They all have Facebook. But also a guy named Larry Morissette, who was a really helpful social worker who introduced us to some of the characters. His family is gang affiliated, he grew up in Winnipeg, and he does a lot of work helping ex gang members get jobs and rebuild their lives, so he has an established level of trust with the community.

Where else did you get your background information from?

I read a book called Indians Wear Red about Aboriginal gang violence which was really helpful and it informed a lot of my research. I also reached out to a lot of community based organizations—groups that work with neighborhoods where there’s a lot of gang activity. And the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg was incredibly helpful.

Source: VICE News

Okay, last question. The nature of this story is obviously tragic, but was there anything you you learned about Native culture through the course of your reporting that struck you as particularly interesting or positive?

I was really lucky that I got to actually experience a side of Native culture that I never have before. I learned about tobacco offering, so when I met with Eric [the elder interviewed in the piece] the first thing I did was give him an offering of tobacco to show that my intentions were pure. Eric brought the story to a really interesting place in terms of culture, and his personal story really informed my understanding of what was going on. He was so understanding, and I couldn’t believe the way in which he was totally okay with explaining every single question I had, because there was so much I didn’t know. I felt really lucky to get the chance to speak with him. We also went to a memorial feast, which we didn’t film out of respect, for a gang member who was killed last year, and so I felt very lucky to partake and be included and welcomed into the culture in that experience.

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Gang activity is a side of Native life that I, and many other Natives, have never really witnessed and certainly don’t know much about. On a personal level, the video opened my eyes wider than I imagined it would. The Anishinaabe side of my family and our tribal homelands are only a short drive from Manitoba, but gang violence like this is something that I’ve never seen. But it’s an important issue to us all, and a harrowing reminder of the devastating legacy which residential schools, colonization, and identity struggles have left in our communities. So, no matter which part of Indian country you hail from, I suggest you check out the piece:

Source: VICE News

Chelsey Luger is from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe & Standing Rock Lakota Nation in North Dakota. An alumna of Dartmouth College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in New York City and remains an avid student of global indigenous politics and history. She hopes to play her role as a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for Native health and wellness. Follow her on instagram at chelswhoelse or twitter @CPLuger.