How a Sask. non-profit helped an ex-gang member, addict recover after penitentiary sentence

Rodney Nataucappo now does public speaking to deter others from gangs and criminal involvement, and to inspire people to continue on their paths to recovery. – Rodney Nataucappo/Submitted

Community-based support often left underfunded compared to reactive measures, says STR8 UP

Rodney Nataucappo’s lifelong struggles with abuse, drugs and gang activity slowly faded away with support during and after his time in Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

Otherwise, he said he may never have known the feeling of recovery.

“Prior to me being involved in STR8 UP, I used to hear lies all of the time – I’ll do this for you, I’ll be there, all these comments that told me that the people I loved and that I should trust, I didn’t love or trust them,” he said.

“To me, it seemed so artificial. I never had anybody come through for me.”

STR8 UP, based in Saskatoon, provides programming to help people transition out of gangs and criminal lifestyles. Nataucappo also worked at its secondary office in Prince Albert as a mentor after being released from jail in 2020.

Nataucappo said he was about 16 years old when he first joined a gang. It was easy to join, he said, with the gang’s “main guy” also being from Yellow Quill First Nation.

At the time, Nataucappo had already established a criminal reputation committing property-related crimes like theft and break and enters. 

“It was the perfect opportunity for me because I had low self-esteem, I had low self-worth, no confidence in what I do except what I know, which is violence and crime,” he said.

The physical and sexual abuse that consumed his home life stemmed from residential schools. Naturally, he said, this led to learning how to fight to protect himself – and it only spiralled from there.

The gang boosted his ego. In the criminal world, your progression through the system was no different than being praised for receiving a sports medal or getting a degree.

“The justice system is exactly like grade school, right up to university. You go to grade school, then you go to high school, then you’re in university once you graduate and hit the penitentiary,” explained Nataucappo. 

“After you get to the penitentiary, that’s the highest achievement in the criminal world.”

Nataucappo was sentenced to four years for an armed robbery and disguise with intent. He said the crime was fuelled by his crystal meth addiction.

He had tried to sober up prior, but relapsed. Having served a longer sentence and being connected to STR8 UP’s founders, Father Andre Poilievre and Stan Tu’Inukuafe, he was able to leave the jail sober.

But that initial transition back into the community – where he easily could have fell back into crime and addictions – was when the support was most important.

A collection of Rodney Nataucappo’s IDs from Correctional Service Canada. The bottom ID card is from his employment at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, where he was released as an inmate just three years ago. – Rodney Nataucappo/Submitted

“The biggest thing is that relationship. Building that positive, trusting relationship so people know that there is that alternative,” said Russ Misskey, STR8 UP’s executive director.

“When they leave a correctional facility, they’re often stuck. Where do they go? If there’s no support there, they often don’t have much choice but to go back to what they knew before. If they don’t have a place to stay, if they don’t have positive people around them.”

Misskey said it’s more cost-effective to fund support programs than it is to put criminals through court and house them in correctional facilities.

Similar community-based initiatives have shown positive results. According to a research analysis, all participants of Youth Alliance Against Gang Violence in Prince Albert had exited gangs or resisted gang involvement at case closure.

It also led to increases in conflict resolution skills and decreases in depression, with 50 per cent of participants finding employment.

“We often don’t think much of putting another five million dollars towards a police force or 120 million dollars towards a correctional facility, but when it comes to the community side of things that gets proven results and is a partner in that whole strategy, it’s often left with very minimal funding,” said Misskey.

The Saskatchewan government introduced the Community Intervention Model (CIM) under the Gang Violence Reduction Strategy in 2019.

The project targets people between 15 and 30 years old who are likely to reoffend without any intervention. They’re connected with a support worker, who helps them access government and community outreach services.

The Ministry of Corrections and Policing partnered with STR8 UP to offer these services in the northern region and Regina Treaty Status Indian Services Inc. in the southern region.

The province invested $4.5 million into the CIM project over four years.

The Herald has not received a response from the ministry to questions about the project’s future, or other initiatives that support people being released from correctional facilities.

“The relationship we had was like a father-son relationship, whereas I didn’t receive this kind of support and this kind of encouragement at home or with my family or friends,” said Nataucappo about STR8 UP.

He said there’s a difference between sobriety and recovery. Nataucappo’s recovery wasn’t just the absence of drugs and alcohol, but re-engaging with morals like respect and honesty that substance use stripped away from him.

“We’re conditioned to live in a lifestyle that’s not meant for us,” he said, “living in a jail cell, living behind a wall, behind a locked door.”

“Within that, we’re conditioned to live in our own jail. Our own jail tells us we can never get out. Our own jail tells us we’re not worth anything. Our own jail tells us we’ll never amount to anything. To me, if I were to discourage somebody from going down that route, I would say change the relationship you have with yourself.”

For Nataucappo, that meant ignoring those lies and cutting people out of his life that influenced them.

“Those are the main thoughts that you have to switch around to ‘I can be successful, I’m lovable, I’m worth it.’”

STR8 UP offering free tattoo removal 

STR8 UP is offering free tattoo removal for people transitioning away from gangs, addictions, and criminal lifestyles.

“Often, they’re removing that marking of someone who they were, not who they are now,” said Misskey.

“For many of them, it’s a really big deal for them. Not just for personal reasons, but also for employment reasons, even just being out and having to explain that to people.”

Misskey said STR8 UP started offering tattoo removal in the spring. 

The organization purchased the laser machine from a company out of the United States, which also travelled to Saskatoon to train staff.

He said anyone across Saskatchewan who meets the requirements can access the service, as long as they can travel to Saskatoon for the removal. On average, according to its website, most tattoos require three to 12 sessions to remove.