By Julia Magsombol
Local Journalism Initiative
Behind second chances is always the willingness to change, and that’s the story of Tania Ross, a former gang member turned motivational speaker and manager at a youth healing lodge in Winnipeg.
Ross, originally from Opaskwayak First Nation in northern Manitoba, grew up in Winnipeg, recalling how it all began.
“It was hard because I didn’t know how to change my whole life. I’ve never lived a legit life before,” she said.
Ross spent 20 years in prison at the Edmonton Institution for Women and was convicted of second-degree murder in Saskatoon.
Going back in time, her parents separated when she was five years old. She lived with her mother until she was 11. Ross was brought up in foster care and spent her youth and teenage years going back and forth between Winnipeg and Edmonton.
She was in foster care until she was 15, and that’s when she started getting into trouble with the law. Ross had her eldest son at the age of 17, and was in an abusive relationship with the father of her child until she was 19. “I was on my own,” she said.
Everything took a turn for Ross when she decided to join the Indian Posse, an Indigenous street gang based in Winnipeg.
“I was charged for home invasion, gang-related . . . three months later I got lonely and went back to the gang lifestyle.”
This was a very tough time in her life, made worse by getting involved with drugs. At one point she went to prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
Ross described her experience inside prison as “pretty rough . . . they treat you like inmates, they don’t treat you like a human.” She added, “Three out of 10 guards care about you. And they want to see you do good in life. But not all guards are like that.”
The Pioneer asked how this action affects people inside the prison system and Indigenous healing lodges as well.
“It depends. If you’re in the max, you weren’t treated very well. If you’re in the minimum, then you were treated very well. So it depends on your security classification,” Ross chuckled.
Meanwhile, Kim Beaudin, the national vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), spoke about healing lodges from a different perspective.
“I do not think it’s really a healing centre designed for and run by Indigenous peoples in Canada. That’s just not what’s happening,” he explained. “They look at these facilities like healing lodges, which is like a barrier for more jails, like more prisons, for more people to be populating in our prisons in Canada. And that’s why they don’t put the necessary resources forward.”
However, Ross said it’s been a journey for her, as she thought she’d never make it out of prison and into healing lodges.
“I just didn’t want to live that life anymore. Slowly, I made my way out of prison. So, it’s been a journey.”
She described how she started changing her life for herself and not for anybody else. She also received a lot of support from the people she loves.
“There’s been lots of people that have come into my support system like my work family, I love them. They’re always there for me. They’re cheering for me to do good . . . my family, my son, and my partner, Mandy.”
Ross went on full parole in 2019 and finally went back home. However, the reality isn’t easy for her. She had a hard time finding jobs, especially in Winnipeg.
“Nobody wants to hire me. And I had all this lived experience and all this training, but nobody would give me a chance,” she said.
But as she changed, second chances came naturally. After 16 months, she got a call from a youth healing lodge in Winnipeg and was offered the program supervisor position for high-risk kids. Six months later, she became the manager.
“I love the work because I can finally give back. What did little Tania need when she was in foster care? Love. And that’s the love I give to these babies who were abused. I love it every day. It doesn’t feel like work,” she said.
Ross also works as a motivational speaker around Canada. She goes to communities to speak to schools and organizations, then tells her life story.
“I forgave my mom a long time ago and forgive myself. And that’s why I can be strong and able to give back today in a good way,” she pointed out.
“To little Tania, I’m here, you don’t have to feel so alone in the world, and you can trust that there are good adults. Keep going to school and have a good life,” Ross said to her younger self.