'I was given everything': Former participant praises Sask. witness protection program

A former participant in Saskatchewan's witness protection program wants taxpayers to know the time and money spent on her was the catalyst she needed to turn her life around.

The woman, who CBC has agreed not to identify, contacted CBC after reading another couple's account of their experience with the program.

"They were saying they were left with nothing? I was given everything. I have a stable life. I provide a stable life for my child. I have an education," she said in a telephone interview from her current home, in a location CBC has also agreed not to disclose.

"I'm a productive, contributing member of society and I'm that way because of the program."

Gangs and crime a 'lifestyle'

Before entering the program, the woman said she was spending time with gang members, partying and breaking the law. 

"I was selling drugs and robbing cars," she said. "I was in and out of jail. I was committing crime. I didn't have anything to lose."

Then, she witnessed a homicide.

She decided to provide a witness statement to Regina police and was accepted into the province's witness protection program.

The program was established by the Saskatchewan government in 2009 at the request of police. Its goal is to counter organized crime, in particular that of street gangs.

Unlike the federal program, the provincial one is temporary. It is meant to keep a witness safe until he or she has finished testifying and then they leave formal protection.

Since the program's inception, an average of eight witnesses have entered each year. 

'I'm going to change my life'

Once in the program, the woman said the rules were made very clear. Participants sign a contract every six months, with the understanding that once the court cases are over, the support for witnesses ends.

"We're given money every week. But we're also supposed to go out and get a job so that when that program ends — because it could be a long time or it could be abruptly — we can be self-sufficient and can continue to pay our rent," she said.

"For me, I decided I'm going to change my life. I'm going to get serious about my education."

She said she was "just sick of living that lifestyle. I actually got an opportunity to change that I never had before and I took advantage of it and now I'm successful."

The woman received treatment and counselling through the program, got her Grade 12 education, then went on to college and university. She is now finishing her degree and working with at-risk youth.

"We have to teach kids from a young age that telling the truth is the right thing. It seems simple but the mentality in the inner-city ... is 'don't co-operate with the police,'" she said.

"To have honour is to not be honest. I really think that we need to change that. It's not snitching when it's murder."

'Take the good with the bad'

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice welcomes the latest assessment of its witness protection program.

"We will take the good with the bad," ministry spokesperson Drew Wilby said, noting the ministry also takes to heart criticisms.

However, he said this woman's experience in witness protection exemplifies how the program is supposed to work.

"Not only the accountability and making sure that our streets are safer because these individuals are put away and they're no longer out there," he said, "but to see that positive benefit to an individual who was willing to take a bit of a risk, turn their life around and rather than end up in one of our correctional facilities or the federal penitentiary — go and get an education and become a contributing member of society."