Day 165 - Don (1st person I approached)
June 14, 2014 - I was walking in a local mall, heading outside through the food court area when I saw Don sitting by himself. He was listening to some music on an old portable cassette player. When he said he’d chat with me I sat down next to him. Don got out of his seat and went to a bag of his and said
“If we’re going to chat, I have to get my juice.” He pulled out a large plastic bottle from his bag, and poured some sparkling cider into a smaller water bottle that he had in front of him.
“There, I’m all ready now,” he said.
Don was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta. He is one of ten children.
“My parents were both born on First Nation reserves. My grandfather was a well known artist. He also used to deliver mail. There’s a great photograph of him with his dog sled taking a trip to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. I remember seeing that when I was a kid,” said Don. When he was seven years old, Don and one of his sisters were removed from their home and put in a residential school.
“I don’t know why, or how they decided who to take. I had older and younger sisters and older brothers. But they just took two of us. My parents didn’t know anything about it either,” he said.
We sit for a few moments, quietly.
“It was brutal. I was scared, and I didn’t know what was going on. I was seven years old,” he said.
“They used to beat us. The nuns. There were three dorms, all filled with bunk beds, maybe fifty kids per room. When you spend all your time with kids, you get to know what’s going on. There was one night I noticed the bed next to mine was empty. In the morning I asked one of the nuns what happened to that kid. She told me he had gone home. I thought that was kind of weird, but didn’t say anything more. About a month later, I saw another bed empty when I woke up. Again they told me he had gone home. The nun said his parents had come to get him. I said to her ‘What, in the middle of the night?’ I got a beating for asking too many questions,” he said.
“They would get you to kneel on a chair, sitting on your knees and they’d whip the bottoms of your feet with a rubber tube.” The children were also expected to be quiet.
“There was a cellar room below ground, that had a steep set of stairs. There weren’t any windows and if you made too much noise or were loud, they’d put you in the cellar and leave you there for hours. It was terrifying,” said Don.
When he was almost eleven years old, Don was put into foster care.
“I was so relieved to be out of that residential school. Nothing could be as bad as that. The foster home was in a rural area and there was already snow on the ground. I think it was about October, maybe November. Back home my uncle used to show me how to set animal traps, and I got it into my head that I could run away and find my way back home. I figured I could trap my food if I needed to. So I ran away. And I got caught,” said Don.
“Man, I took a severe beating for that. She used a black garden hose to beat me with. I got beat bad,” he says, his voice trailing off. For the next five years, Don would be moved around from one foster home to another.
“I was in near thirty different foster homes. I can’t read or write because of moving around so much. I ran away a few times again. So they moved me to Edmonton. I guess they figured if I thought I couldn’t find my way home, I wouldn’t run away,” he said. Don then reached up and put his fingers in his mouth and removed his partial upper denture.
“I was in the system until I was 18. Then they turn you out. When I was sixteen, I was taken to this new foster home. The man’s name was Myron and his wife was Mona. They had five chidden of their own. They showed me to my room, and I stayed there. Later, Myron came upstairs to tell me that dinner was ready. I didn’t go. He came again later and said I would have to come downstairs eventually. ‘You need to eat’ he said. I didn’t go down that night. The next morning I went downstairs and the family were all having breakfast. Of course I was hungry so I sat at the table. They all seemed nice, and got along well. Myron told me that he knew I was frightened but that if I treated his kids and them nicely, they’d make sure I was looked after,” Don said.
“It was the first time in all those years anyone had said anything like that to me. I could tell over the next few days that they were good people. I could see how happy their kids were, and that they were a good family.”
Don told me a story about a friend of Myron’s.
“They had some property together, and grew grain. They’d known each other for years, and were good friends. One day I’m in the car with Myron and we go to the grain barn. His friend comes out to the car and tells Myron that there’s something wrong with a piece of equipment, that it somehow broke. Then his friend accuses me of breaking it, and comes around to my side of the car and starts yelling at me, saying I had broken it. Myron got out of the car and goes right over to his friend and tells him ‘If you ever talk to my son like that again, I’ll fucking beat you!’ No one had ever defended me before. I knew I was a part of the family.”
When Don turned eighteen, Myron and Mona gave him an old car that they had bought. Myron had been teaching Don to drive.
“Mona told me ‘We want you to have this.’ It was a cheque for $3000 and she also had information about my mother. I had thought my parents were dead. I hadn’t heard anything about them for years. They wanted me to go find my family. They were so good to me. Much better than those who claimed to be doing good in the name of religion,” said Don. He found his mother, his father and his extended family. Exactly where Mona had tracked them down.
“My parents are both dead now, but I had a chance to spend time with them and get to know them again,” said Don. He has remained in contact with Myron, Mona and their children all these years.
Back in Fort McMurray, Don started working for the forestry division.
“Every spring they would have a month long training camp for fire-fighting. Then for the season, I worked on the pre-attack crew. Going in and accessing what was needed and how much the fire would take to get under control. I did that for eleven years,” he said. Don got married, and they had seven daughters. He also carves leather.
“You give me a piece of leather and I can make you the nicest vest you’ve ever seen. I can carve it, sew it. There’s nothing I can’t do with a good piece of leather,” says Don. I asked if he carves wood.
“No. Shit man, I’m from Alberta, we don’t carve wood there. We’ve got so many cow hides available, trees and wood carving is a west coast thing.” He looked at me, shook his head and laughed. I couldn’t help but smile.
About 15 years ago, Don and his wife moved to Vancouver.
“It was mostly because of the weather. It’s warmer here and not as rough in the winter. It’s also better for my health. I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), it’s a lung disease. I’ve already had one of my lungs removed. There’s too much pollution in Alberta as well, so it’s just better for me here.” Don said. Sadly, his wife passed away seven months ago.
“It’s tough. I’m here by myself now. My kids are all in Alberta and Saskatchewan, they’ve got their own lives. There’s nothing there for me,” he said.
I tell Don that I think considering everything he’s been through, he seems to be holding it together really well.
“No. I’m not. I drink every day. From the time I get up, until I go to bed. It’s the only thing that helps me get through the days.” He then tells me that on the 25th of this month, he’s going into a detox and recovery program.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m just biding my time. The next intake isn’t until the 25th. Then I go to detox for five days and then into a recovery program for a few months. I try to look after myself, clean clothes, shower every day, I eat a decent diet. I’m doing what I can,” he says. I ask if he’s ok if I share this part of his story.
“You fill your boots pal. I’m happy to have you tell my story. If you want to write a book, you come see me. I could tell you so much more. Enough to fill a book for sure.” Then he looks at me and says
“You’re not a cop are you?”
We move from where we’re sitting so I can take Don’s picture. I tell him I hope that I’ll see him around so we can chat again, and see how he’s getting along. As I hold up my phone to take his picture, he says
“Wait! My teeth.” He reaches into his pocket, puts his teeth in and smiles.
“Ok. We’re good.” #notastranger