I Am More Than My Criminal Record

Maybe I Am (You Should Be Too)

“My parents got divorced when I was 8. It was hard on all of us kids. I was going through some crazy emotional stuff. I was targeted at school a lot. I was always taught to stand up for myself so I started fighting.  But it’s not the fighting that hurt, it was what the kids said to me.

I was getting bullied at home too. I would get the crap beaten out of me. I caught my mom doing things I didn’t want to see. There was probably two solid years where I woke up every single day and didn’t want to live anymore. Maybe this was the first time I was severely depressed. I wrote some songs and some really dark poetry at the time. The only time I was ever smiling back then was when I was playing soccer.

I left home when I was 13. I didn’t know about any of the social services so I did a lot of couch-surfing, sleeping on trains, sleeping at McDonald’s, bus stations and stuff. I was telling everyone I was 15 so I could work.

I was a Christian kid, never stole anything in my life. I was getting ripped off by my employers to barely get crumbs on my table. So I entered the street community, which was a scary place. That’s how I got into the system.

I’m proud of every job I ever got. I thought I was going to be a drug dealer for the rest of my life but I’ve been at this job now for a month and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. It actually has benefits, everything covered from boots to psychological to massages. I could turn this into a career if I can focus on getting a full recovery because I’m still suffering from depression.

Eventually I want to start a farm or ranch type of thing, a totally safe, drug-free environment for kids and teach these guys some life skills and responsibility and it will be therapeutic for them. I love nature and being out of the city. There’s no better environment to heal in. That’s my biggest dream, my desire to give back.

I still try to involve sports in my life because they are a very positive outlet for me. I play on a softball team now. I still want to be part of the hip-hop industry and make music with a positive message that can make a difference in people’s lives. I want to connect with people who are in those negative spaces. I’ve been struggling financially for a while but, when I have the money, I want to put up a studio in my house.

There are a lot of privileged people in this city and I was probably just like them before I went through all this stuff. But now I’ve tasted the dirt spoon and I know that I’m blessed. I thank God for having a roof over my head and food in my stomach.

No journey is made overnight. I’m just taking a different route.”

I Am Driven

“It felt like most of the foster parents just kept us around for money. In grade school I wanted to hang around other girls in the neighborhood but they didn’t want to because I was brown and in foster care.

I was a good student. I was on the honor roll in Grade 7. I was really smart and determined but I was also searching for acceptance. I’d been in seven different foster homes and never really got to have a truly stable life where I knew my surroundings weren’t going to change. I rarely got to see my seven siblings and searched for family in my friends. I wanted to fit in so I let my focus on school drift for something I found to be more important for myself. Which led me to experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

At the time, I didn’t realize that I was drinking to numb the pain inside because of the sexual trauma I dealt with as a child. I think that’s why I had a lot of anger growing up. I had blocked the memories out and remembering it made it harder to cope with.

I ran away when I was 15. Again I experienced trauma when I was on the streets, to the point that I was brainwashed to believe that I deserved this kind of lifestyle. I’ve been told that I give a tough exterior but, because I was so strong, a lot of people didn’t realize I needed help.

When I was in the pen, I got help through therapists and programming. It helped me a lot to have people acknowledge my trauma and what I’ve been through. I always laugh at my pain. I know it’s not funny, but the laughter turns to tears and then I can deal with it. I always try to look on the positive side — one thing I did like about foster homes was that I got to see how different people lived, how one way wasn’t always the right away. I think it made me wiser.

I graduated high school in the pen. I knew I was smart enough to do it, I just didn’t know if I could persevere, so I’m really proud of that. But I’m most proud of my accomplishments in the past year — getting a job at a coffee shop and continuing to work there, and that I’m sober. I’ve been sober for 14 months now. I never thought I could get sober. When you get so deep into your drug use, you become a different person — you become desperate. I have a lot of remorse for that. But working helps me stay sober.

When I look back at pieces of my life, I feel like they’re different lifetimes. I almost can’t relate because I’m not that person anymore. I like the fact that I’m shedding the image of who I once was.”

I Am Whole

“As a kid, I harboured a lot of hatred for my old man. He started doing drugs and was extremely violent. It was hell, but he did what he could. I went through about 26 different foster homes by the time I was 11, where I learned to steal and fight to survive. I learned not to take anything for granted, always respect what you got, and who you got — especially who you got.

I drew every day when I was a kid and, when I graduated high school with honours, I got scholarships for advanced animation. I also studied social work because I wanted to help troubled teenagers, guys like me. I started competing heavily in boxing and won a few championships. Boxing is the thing that makes the most sense to me — it taught me self-control.

I was dealing with a lot of mental health stuff in college and got myself involved with people I shouldn’t have, who offered me great things and to be part of something bigger. I eventually lost everything to this lifestyle — my fiancé, my house, everything. I started doing hard drugs and it led me to rock bottom.

In jail, I promised myself not to get into a single fight. That was really tough to do, but I did it. When I got out of jail, I didn’t have anybody, so I worked with the Calgary John Howard Society and they helped me find a place to live and someone to talk to. Not having anywhere to go after jail — that’s where most people crack and go back to what they did before. But I’ve come this far, and I ain’t going back.

Boxing has been the most influential thing in my life. When I thought I was a tough guy and stepped into the ring, I got humbled really quick. It made me realize that you can’t always approach everything with sheer force — you have to think things through and walk out of there with a lesson and a positive attitude.

I’m working on bettering myself, keeping my mind busy. I’ve really been enjoying cooking random stuff with my roommate and experimenting with it. Going to the gym as much as I can. And, as much as I am an introvert, being around people who are healthy and like to do cool things makes me happy.

Knowing I’ve been through all this stuff and can share my story, and say I’m not in that lifestyle anymore — I’m proud of myself for just making it. I am a whole person now and my mental strength and control are really good. I used to mistake being negative with being realistic, now I’ve changed my mindset and try to always look for the positive.

When I was a kid, everyone told me I wasn’t going to make it. People will tell you it’s easier to quit, but you gotta stay strong. There’s no easy way to keep going — you just gotta keep going.”

I Am Mindful

“Growing up on a rez in B.C., all my best friends were Native. They cared about me and helped me out. But I got bullied really hard by the white kids. I started having panic attacks in social situations. I would pick myself apart with the insults people would say to me, believe them — let them manifest. I developed depression and, when I was 11, I started smoking pot and drinking to deal with it.

I dropped out when I was 15 and completely isolated myself from people. At 16, I got a job at a local saw mill, piling lumber, then went on to operating machines and eventually becoming a foreman. I really matured and developed into an adult during that job — it taught me a lot of work ethic.

Over the years, I worked really hard but, as I got older, the drugs got harder and harder. I was in a pretty toxic relationship with this girl and, when it ended, I didn’t know how to handle it. I went into a downward spiral of self-medicating and ended up in jail.

There was a lot of literature at the jail about mindful meditation so I studied it in my cell and, that alone, has changed my life. Although the bullying still affects me to this day, meditation completely rewired the way I think — with mindfulness, I learned how to deal with my emotions without drugs. The prison had really good Native healing programs, too, so we smudged every day, and did sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies.

Welding is my career — I’ve been doing it for 16 years — so when I finally found a job as a journeyman welder, I felt truly grateful. Now I can start putting money away, buy my own place and build my life.

Growing up I took part in the Native culture and learned a lot from them. I have learned the damage that angry words can do to a person, a community, a generation. And I’ve learned that we’re all connected with one another, and the earth and the whole universe. Anger is a feeling that will pass, but your actions can’t be taken back.”

I Am Hard-Working

“I come from a storybook of bad things. It was pretty rough — lots of drugs, crime. My mother had addiction problems. Seeing her drugged up was difficult and I didn’t want to bring people to my house. But my father was a good man. He was the rock of the family even though I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him. He worked hard at what he did and never drank.

I’m dyslexic, which I didn’t understand at the time, and I had a total lack of confidence in myself. By the time I was 12, I was going to nightclubs with my uncles. I started smoking pot and went on to hard drugs. I was sexually abused as a young boy a couple of times and was using drugs to mask my feelings.

I was incarcerated several times during my life and I got to a point where I just looked at my youngest son and said, ‘This is getting too close to home. This is it, I’m finished.’ I made one of the best choices — to change. I wanted to break the cycle for my three sons.

I only learned how to read in my 20s — I taught myself. The Calgary John Howard Society really helped build my confidence and give me the tools I needed. After I got my industry tickets, I put out five applications and, within a week, I was getting everybody calling me up. It was quite amazing. I now run a truck in the oilfield. It’s physically demanding and you have to be able to troubleshoot. My fear has always been not succeeding, but I went out and worked and it was rewarding.

I work a lot, and I actually like myself now. I’m good at what I do and I’m reliable. Work has removed me from negative activity, which I found has really helped me, and I’ve continued to grow and improve in this environment.

One of the things I’ve learned is that addiction is a battle every day. I’m alive, and going to work is what saves me.”

I Am Committed

“When I was growing up, my parents never shared their feelings. They went to residential school, where they were taught not to talk to each other and they did not know how to communicate. That’s why they were abusive and I think that’s why they took their anger and frustrations out on me.

I used to see a lot of things I shouldn’t have seen at parties around the house. I was being abused by another family member too. I never learned to talk about my feelings with anybody. I always felt, like, what’s wrong with me? The way I dealt with it was I’d search for things to make myself feel better. I used to sniff gas right until I passed out.

I saw the insanity in my life and I wanted to change. I started going to church in prison to ask God for some answers. I was suicidal all messed up on anti-depressants and anxiety medication. I was angry and crying and, all of a sudden, I see this child by the cell door, crying. He was looking at me, and I said, ‘Shut up, nobody wants nothing to do with you anymore. They all threw you away.’ And then I knew God was showing me — that child was me. So I picked him up and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.’

I wanted to heal. I wanted to do better and I missed my family. I took every program that was available to me. I got my GED, went to AA meetings every week and became the AA chairman. I became the Coordinator for the Alternatives to Violence Program inside, and now I can also leave the institution to facilitate it in the community. I have facilitated over 20 workshops since 2013.

It feels good helping other people with their communication skills, something I never knew how to do. If I would’ve learned how to communicate my feelings earlier, I never would’ve gone down that dark road. Those feelings, that anger and bitterness and secrets and addiction within myself — when mixed with alcohol, it was dangerous.

It’s God’s grace that has helped me through all the turmoil. You know how white people have horoscopes? I’m a Leo. In our Native people way, I’m a salmon. During my last workshop, I was standing at the river, looking at how fast it flows, thinking of the salmon swimming against the current. I was thinking about my life, how hard it has been swimming against that current, trying to find my way home. I also thought about a song I sing all the time: ‘To the river I am going, bringing sins I cannot bare. Come and cleanse me…come forgive me. Lord, I need to meet you there. In those waters, healing mercy flows with freedom and despair. I am going — to the river, Lord I need to meet you there.’”

Photo by Azriel Knight

I Am a Student to Be

“I’m gonna get right down to it — I am an alcoholic. Alcohol has ruled my life since I was 16 years old and it contributed to my divorce. For a long time, I felt like I was wandering in a catatonic state – I alienated my two kids from my life and they stopped communicating with me. Last May, I decided to take the AA program seriously, and I have been sober since. I had a lot of time on my hands, did a lot of thinking, and set two objectives: to get a job and to become computer literate.

I came to the Calgary John Howard Society to get help with the process of getting a pardon (record suspension), as my criminal record created obstacles in finding a job. The intake worker handed me a flyer for digital literacy classes and I have been attending classes ever since. I learned how to turn on a computer and now I am learning to use Google Drive and Microsoft Word. The Digital Literacy instructor then brought up the idea of school and I thought to myself, ‘I am 61 years old. I have spent the last 40-some years killing brain cells. How can I possibly do that?’ But I thought about it. I had always wanted to go back to school — I thought about continuing to study history or to get a Bachelor of Education to teach. Ultimately, I wanted to study something that I would find interesting and thought that I would like to study something that involved helping people with alcoholism and addiction in general. As an alcoholic, I can often be more helpful and understanding of the alcoholic’s mind and heart simply because I’ve experienced it.

Eventually, I applied to Bow Valley College to become an Addictions Counsellor. I was surprised when I got a letter stating that I had been accepted into the Addiction Studies Certificate program. I’m looking forward to getting out and being with people after years of being at home. I’m learning to use words I used to know, but hadn’t used in a while. I’m excited about my re-entry into life.

I deal with life one day at a time – it’s about the journey, not the destination. You can’t do anything about yesterday, but taking action one day at a time is all that matters and the only thing I can do anything about. I start school on August 30th and I hope to find employment at a Community Link location, a treatment center or to conduct classes about the Big Book. Both my children now speak to me and I recently met my grandchildren. Now that class starts soon, I have to think about taking the C-Train, walking to get to my class and sitting in a classroom. I don’t know how I am going to do all of this, but I am going to give it a try. One day at a time.”

I Am Self-Sufficient

“I was born and raised in a small town in the Okanagan. I had a normal upbringing, but got involved with the wrong crowd and became an addict. I started to spiral out of control, and by the age of 14 I received my first conviction. I was in and out of juvenile facilities and rehabilitation programs for most of my youth. After discovering heroin at 16, my criminal charges got more serious and it got harder to get off drugs. At the age of 25, I turned myself in and decided to detox myself completely. That was the first time I had been clean in a long time. I wanted to change, but I never believed I could do it. While incarcerated, I realized that if I wanted to keep making the right choices once released, I needed to relocate and made a plan to move to Calgary. At this point, I didn’t have my family in my life, they had cut ties – it was pretty much me and my record.

When I settled in Calgary, I had no luck finding a job because of my criminal record. But I found an employment program at the Calgary Drop-In Centre (DI). I completed their three-week employment certification program and applied for their Woodworks program to learn to become an upholsterer, temping in the meantime to pay the bills. Unfortunately, my past interfered with my life again when I had to submit a criminal record check. They had strict guidelines about accepting people with certain charges and I was first told they will likely not accept me. A few staff members from the DI advocated for me and I called them every other week for three straight months to find out if they would let me take their program. I told them, ‘I have nothing in my life to this point. And if you just give me the opportunity, I will show you that I wanna be here and I wanna learn.’

They finally accepted me. I started off learning upholstery. Once I finished that program, I also completed their cabinet-making program. I was there for 10 months and applied for my Cabinetmaker apprenticeship. I am now working full-time as a Finisher for an employer who is understanding about my past. I am registered to attend SAIT next spring, something I never saw in my future before, and I will be a Journeyman Cabinetmaker in four years. I will celebrate my second anniversary in sobriety this summer and am proud of how far I have come. I now speak to my parents on a regular basis and they come out to see me in Alberta regularly – they are also very proud of me.

My dream is to save up and travel. I would also like to keep doing finishing work because I really enjoy it. I want to have enough money saved up to buy my own house – something I never thought I could have. I am determined and self-sufficient. It is nice to not have to rely on government assistance and be able to be a productive member of society. Coming home dirty and tired from a long day’s work is the best feeling. Better than any high I have ever experienced.”

I Am A Proud First Nations

“My twin brother and I were taken out of our mom’s care frequently. At the age of 6, I became a permanent ward of the government and spent 10 years in foster care. I was always kind of on the fringe of things and felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. During my later teen years, I had worked in the bush as a logger, but I was in an accident and hurt my back. I was big and strong – it seemed that logging was my life – but life had other plans for me.

When I was of age, I found my mom in Hobbema and we went back to live there. That same feeling of not belonging continued, because the way we were brought up (in foster care) was so different from life on the reservation. We didn’t stay long – there was so much violence, abuse, drugs and alcohol. We came back to Calgary and I was in the midst of (an alcohol) addiction and moved right into accessing shelters and living in the streets.

In 2000, I had liver failure and went into treatment. When I came out, I ended up associating with the same people I’d been with on the streets and I quickly became a drug addict. Dealing drugs became a way to maintain the habit. Then my brother passed. Grief was so deep and I became angry, isolated and very hostile towards people. Over the years, I was in and out of jails and the penitentiary. The last time I was in, I thought to myself, ‘what am I doing? This is a waste of my life, living in a cage.’ An opportunity came in the jail to participate in an Indigenous cultural reconnection program. I got to experience ceremony, made the connection to the higher power, developed some hope and that gave me what I needed to change.

I started temping for an agency in Calgary and was doing well, working full-time for a company. One day, I was asked to provide a criminal background check and I had to tell them about my criminal history. I lost my job. I was back on the streets, living on an abandoned bus and an addict again. One day, I went back to the bus and it was gone with all my stuff. My home was gone and I ended up on the mats at Alpha House. Someone from their housing team connected me with the Calgary John Howard Society, as I had signed up for their housing program shortly after I left the penitentiary and, within two weeks, I moved in to a place. I then went to CUPS and they got me in the methadone program.

I have to think back on the core thing that was consistent throughout the ups and downs, and it was my participation and connection to the great spirit. Shortly after, I became a member of the Grateful or Dead peer support group and began to volunteer as an Outreach Worker, working out of the Sheldon Chumir clinic. They asked me to provide a criminal background check before I could volunteer. When I didn’t pass, I was told that they could not use me. But a lady by the name of Diane that worked there said, ‘you are not doing this to this man, we are going to give him a chance.’

Now I’m a Support Worker at Alpha House and I’ve been housed for almost four-and-a-half years. I just think about my own recovery process and the challenges I faced. I bring people to meetings to connect them with others. I can laugh and joke with clients and have very real conversations. When I was making those prayers in jail it changed something intrinsically within me – now I really have that deep desire to help other people. But I didn’t do this alone.

There were pioneers along the way that believed in me and saw beyond me being a criminal, an addict and homeless. People say, ‘you need to see to believe’, but the truth of the matter is – you need to believe to see.”

I Am Relentless

“My father died when I was five years old and my mother was violent and abusive. I don’t blame her though, she had been abused in residential school and came back broken. It was normal to be out with her when she went drinking. The party would move from house to house and sometimes she would forget me at a party. My grandparents played private investigators and would always save me. They were superman and superwoman – they instilled good values in me and were the most kindhearted people. My mother was kindhearted and smart too, but not when she drank. When she was sober, she would always tell me to get an education.

By the time I was 7, I was taken away and placed in a foster home, but I would always run away. I had been in so much trouble with the law and been through so many different foster homes that I was sent to reform school. I eventually moved from reform school to every youth jail and corrections facility in Alberta. At 16, with probably over 20 convictions, I was an alcoholic and drug addict. When I was in the system, I took my mom’s advice and enrolled in every educational program they offered and started to notice that everything I had been taught was not normal.

Years later, I realized what killed my parents is the alcoholism. I eventually got clean and I’ve been sober for the past five years. I’ve made more progress in the last five years than the previous 35 put together. When I was 35, I had had a Grade 7 education and, in six months, I earned my GED and went on to trades college. I then became an art and Cree teacher at a resource centre for drug users and addicts in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. My colleague at the centre was a Juno Award-winning producer and, in our spare time, we created music. I’ve learned how to play instruments and even recorded albums. I am also a tattoo artist, a sculptor, a published writer and a father. I have helped raise eight children – something I am very proud of. Quitting drinking saved my life, but music filled the void of the empty bottle and allowed me to be who I am today – someone who is relentless and has overcome all barriers put in my path.”

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