Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Halfway house staff arrested

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The future of a program meant to help ex-gang members start fresh is uncertain after a police investigation resulted in the arrest of seven staff members and clients of the Paa Pii Wak halfway house, with another two men still sought by police.

Winnipeg police said the federally funded program was supposed to help homeless aboriginal men break free of gang and criminal ties or addictions.

Instead, police allege the Point Douglas program hired active gang members, some of whom were allowed to supervise gang-affiliated former prisoners who'd been released into Paa Pii Wak's care.

"They were actively pursuing their criminal lifestyle," said police Const. Jacqueline Chaput of the staff members. "They were not trying to get out of that lifestyle."

Police allege Paa Pii Wak staff worked to get known gang members released into the program's care. Other allegations include excessive drinking at the facility, where alcohol was banned for clients, and obstruction of justice when police sought information on a court-order breach.

The investigation into the eight-bed facility began in late October, with the seven men arrested from Dec. 18 to Jan. 9. Their charges include breaches of a sentence or probation, obstruction of justice, and failure to comply with conditions of a recognizance or a probation order.

Staffers Kenneth Wayne Harry, 28, and Melvin Wayne Starr, 38, were arrested on charges of obstruction of justice, but have since been released. Staff members Leon Edward Vermette, 33, and Bradley Cory Ferland, 23, were arrested on numerous charges.

Glen George Anderson, 35, George William McKinney, 20, and Sheldon Charles McCorrister, 47, were also arrested, while police are still looking for Jonathon Stacy Myran, 36, and Albert James Choken, 42.

Garrett Courchene, one of the few Paa Pii Wak staff members left, said Tuesday he's frustrated by arrests that meant two Paa Pii Wak clients had to be returned to the Winnipeg Remand Centre for supervision to fulfil the conditions of their court orders.

He's unsure of the future of the programming Paa Pii Wak offers.

Courchene freely admits his past gang affiliations and time behind bars, and says he left the gang in 1998. He said the organization has been through tough times, but survives because people who work there believe they change gang-involved men's lives.

"Nobody wants to hire an ex-gang member," he said, peeling potatoes in an Elgin Avenue house with a former inmate with tattooed hands.

Courchene said Paa Pii Wak's safe house on Maple Street has a few remaining clients, with bare-bones staffing. A black cat padded around the front hallway of the Point Douglas residence Tuesday afternoon, the only sign of activity other than a security camera posted above a porch to monitor visitors.

Izzy Vermette, Paa Pii Wak's previous head, also still works for the group.

Vermette is no stranger to controversy. In December 2004, the provincial Tories said the province should pull its funding of a tattoo-removal and anti-gang program because they alleged Vermette, in charge of the program, was a "known gang member."

In January 2005, Paa Pii Wak received about $398,000 for housing and programs for gang-involved men through the Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative -- funded by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments.

A federal Human Resources and Skills Development Canada spokesman said a group called the Deliverance Centre Church sponsored Paa Pii Wak, and received about $270,000 in funding under the Homelessness Partnership Initiative for Aboriginal Communities.

Chaput said two previous sponsors of Paa Pii Wak withdrew their sponsorships, and that the current sponsor has chosen not to renew.

A former employee of Paa Pii Wak said the program can reform ex-gang members, but only if quality people are hired and paid accordingly. He also said animosity between police and some program staff led to the investigation and the charges.

"Police went on a fishing expedition," said the former employee, who asked not to be named. "That's all this is."

One of the charged staff members has a tumultuous history with police.

Last May, Leon Vermette filed a complaint with the Law Enforcement Review Agency alleging he'd been sexually assaulted and seriously beaten by up to eight police officers after being arrested for breaking into an elderly woman's home.

In 2007, Myran pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman in an incident that also involved smashing the back window of her car. Myran was on a mix of steroids and anti-depressants, and was naked from the waist down at the time of the attack. He was sentenced to 23 months in jail.

-- With files from Bruce Owen



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2009 A3

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