So I moved to Winnipeg with my grandfather. We went to live with my biological mother, Suzie. She was more like a sister. I never had love for her like I did for my mom. I understood that she wasn’t like a real parent. I’d already heard stories about her. My granny used to say my biological mother had some problems, but she was trying to work through them. She was shooting up, she was drinking, she was sniffing and she was hooking. She was fucking partying all the time. She even got my grandpa on Talwin and Ritalin. When you mix those two together, they make synthetic heroin. Suzie wasn’t a good person.
It was residential schools that got her fucked up. That was her hurt. Those schools fucked up my grandparents too, because they always drank even though they were educated. When they were drunk they’d cry and feel their pain. They’d be talking in their language but I’d get the gist of it. I’d know how they were treated, how they couldn’t even speak their own language there. I remember thinking at those times, All that residential school crap has had its ripple effect and I don’t want to be a victim of that. My whole life had already been affected by them being in residential school, and I didn’t want to take on that handicap; I swore I would never let it be my handicap. Seeing my family members all fucked up because of what happened in those schools made me want to break the cycle of drinking and violence. What I didn’t know then, but realize now, is that I was already living the cycle: the drinking, the violence, the gangs. It took me some time to try to do better.
I left behind my childhood when I got to the city. We couldn’t just go to the store and buy food, or clothes or presents. No more Christmases after that. Whatever I needed, whatever I wanted, I had to take. My biological mother said, “This is not like back home. You’re not living with Granny and Grandpa anymore. Over here you got to grow up and get stuff on your own.” I thought, Fuck, okay. Well, if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.
My first month in Winnipeg I was already shoplifting to get groceries for myself. Otherwise I couldn’t eat. There’d be nothing in the fridge. My biological mother would say “You’re eleven years old; you can get away with anything right now. You could get away with murder, but when you’re twelve you’re going to the Youth Center if you get caught.” She schooled me on the justice system. She taught me never to rat, not even on myself. She said, “Don’t bother giving the cops any statements, not even on yourself.” She said, “That’s their fucking job. Let them find out.” She took me down Main St. and showed me all the bars and introduced me to the bar owners. I started hustling at those bars—Walkmans, clothes, anything. I even started doing garages: break and enters. Car stereos were a big thing for me because I could pull them out fast. I’d go in there with my flat head screwdriver and bang, bang, bang, I’d pull it out and go sell it at the bar. I was probably doing ten a day. I would make more than enough money. I’d just say, “Here, just take it, $10 or whatever.”
I went to school at first because I wanted to get to know people. I grew up in Little Chicago, the D, The Lord Selkirk Developments off Dufferin Avenue. I went to Wellington Elementary when I first got here. Grade 6. There were already gangs—eight or nine different gangs. Fuck, there were lots, man, lots. People were talking about them. Then I went to Niji Mahkwa Aboriginal School and RB Russell High School. I kept going off and on until Grade 9 or 10.
I’d heard stories about the city before I came. My automatic impression was that everyone was a gangster, sold drugs, carried straps and did dirt. And everyone was. You couldn’t even go to the other side of the bridges, Arlington or Salter, without having to change your shirt so you could change your colours; otherwise, you’d get done in. The north end was one gang, south of the bridges were a few others. In those days we used to watch the bridges. Anybody that came over wearing another colour, we’d roll on them, roll hard. We’d fuck the shit right out of them or fucking blast them. I had my first gun at age eleven. I was shooting at people, cars, houses, sometimes shooting at the air. At the time I was still thinking, if you shoot at a wall of a house, it’s going to get stuck in the wall. I didn’t realize what I was doing. It didn’t even dawn on me that a bullet could go right through a wall and kill someone. I was just a kid. Those were real bad times.
So now I’m back out of the hole and I got a second chance, but the administration put me on the Native range. It was a cultural range and I was the only white guy. The other inmates didn’t like white guys. They didn’t even like half-breeds; they were considered second-class citizens. But I don’t think I was put on that range maliciously. The prison was just full, and it was probably the only spot.
One thing that helped me fit in right away was my love of hockey and being a good hockey player. Stony had a hockey league. Growing up my best friend was Cree, so I didn’t look down on my Native inmates. But I didn’t understand their culture, so I was having troubles tolerating it. The inmates were always banging their drums and burning their sweet grass. One of the guys on the range told me “You have to learn to exist here,” and he showed me how.
At that time in my life I was spiritually empty because I had given up any idea of God or the dogmatic system I was raised on. My life had been about doing whatever I wanted and having fun. I didn’t give a shit. I had a closed mind to all religion, but this guy got me hooked up into something that filled a void in my life.
I saw guys going to Sweat Lodges, and you know what, I got curious. I wasn’t planning any outcome of a spiritual nature; I just thought it looked fun. My second year in the jail I went to my first Sweat Lodge. I went respectfully, but not looking for anything. I respected the customs, the people, the process, and the potentiality of what might happen there. I had no idea people could have visions there, or what that would feel like. I fasted I think for a few days before, so I was tired and weak. I was dehydrated. And then when I got into the Sweat Lodge I was hallucinating. I was mentally separated from my physical self.
While I was in there I had a vision. It was not something that I saw; it wasn’t a picture. Instead the vision that came to me was a knowing. It was something that I needed. It was a wake-up moment where I knew I needed more. The vision that came to me was that I was going to play football in the CFL.
After the Sweat Lodge I went to the showers and I was trying to make sense of what I was feeling, what I thought. It had all been so weird. I had a good cry in the showers, a bit of a mental breakdown really.
At that time in my life I never cried. I had just started seeing a psychologist and the very first thing he said to me was that if I had an opportunity to cry, I shouldn’t hold back. He said that holding back was really unhealthy. I had been doing that for so many years. I was running from my pain in such a profound way that it was very damaging to the people around me and to myself. So it hit me that day- boom- I had a big cry. I let it happen just like the psychologist had said, and it felt good.
So I started crying whenever I felt I needed to. When you’re in prison you can’t admit you’re scared or sad because the guys around you can’t allow that weakness in their lives. So guys put up these walls, and won’t cry. But they do. You hear it when the doors are locked and the lights are out. When it’s 3 a.m. That’s when you hear men crying, crying like babies.
Shortly after that Sweat Lodge, I woke up one night at 3 or 4 in the morning, shaking like a leaf. Terrified. Never been scared like that in my life. I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, two years in on a life sentence; the minimum number of years for release was so far ahead of me. And I think to myself, What the fuck have I done? I suddenly regretted every single thing that brought me to that moment. It wasn’t just a single incident, it was the combination of the way I had lived my life, the bad energy.
What got me out of that moment? I made a commitment to change. I actually made a promise to myself and a deal with my Creator. You give me football and I will work with kids. It’s something I committed to and did: coaching football, jiu-jitsu, working with youth. Later on, there was a couple of times I stopped working with kids, and the football disappeared. But then the phone would ring with another football opportunity and I’d get back to working with kids again. While I was on the Native range I got to know my native brothers. You could see the social injustices against them, just by the numbers. I started to understand their situation about three years in and by the eighth of ninth year I could really understand my Native brothers around me.
I have peace right now and I am continuing to heal. I’m making that choice. Sometime in 2014, I started thinking it was about time to let go of some of my baggage from my friends’ deaths, especially N’s. What happened to those people was painful for me. I have my scars, both physical and mental. The cycle of violence continues and I am reminded of the reality of that violence often. Now I choose to remember those friends by thinking of their last words of hope and optimism to me. I was angry for a long time, but I decided I have to let this go if I want to have peace and move on. Now, on the anniversary of N’s death, I’m trying to respect and celebrate his life. I will never forget him, but I hold his death differently now. It was heavy, and I still have feelings of grief, guilt and anger, but I want N’s death to transform me, in hope of it being for the positive.
The other important thing that helps me heal is just acknowledging that there are still people in that same struggle. I’ve changed my reality, but it’s difficult knowing that some of my former friends are still involved in gang life. In the beginning when I started to change and left the gang, my former gang members were suspicious, but now they leave me alone. They know how I am. I see them, I ask them how they are doing, but I don’t really talk to them. Sometimes, they tell me that what I’m doing is good. They say they wish they could do it too. They even tell me I’m a role model and that they can see that I’ve changed. I don’t seek that attention. That was never my intention at all. But their comments have an impact on me. I feel blessed because I am developing as a person, transforming, and demonstrating that to myself. The healing process is also about allowing myself to do good. If my former gang friends seek my help I will tell them that I can do something for them, as long as they are willing to invest. They have to be willing. I can only help in certain ways. I know it will take time to redirect their lives.