How does a kid who spends weeknights building Lego hotels and his weekends casting for river trout turn into a career criminal and murderer? That’s what I wanted to know. So a decade ago I enrolled in a program to help me to find the answer.
In 2001, the Violence Prevention Program was new to the B.C. prison I was sleeping in, and at the time there were only twelve open spots for three hundred and forty prisoners. Lifers were not a priority. But after a couple of successful intake interviews, those in charge of seating saw something in me that they could work with – and offered me chair number twelve. I jumped at it.
Over the next five months, psychologists and program facilitators poked, prodded and challenged us until I knew more about violence than a North African dictator. Questions like, “When was the first time in your life you ever saw violence?” and “When was the first time you remember hitting someone? How did you feel?” really kicked up the dust in my memory vault. Other classes examined new terms like ”reactive” and “instrumental” violence, and the question of why we choose violence as a response (big surprise – because it works!). Nevertheless, it was the effort we put into finding the roots of violence that rewarded me most. It was there that I found the memories of a long ago assault on my dignity, memories as faint as a decades old sign in the desert.
Now if you’re thinking that this is the part where the jailbird blames his woes on a difficult childhood – time out. The only thing the blame game has ever done is put people on their knees. I may be a lot of things, but on my knees is not one of them.
However, there is an important difference between blaming and understanding. Where blaming asks “why,” understanding goes looking for “what?” – as in what the hell happened to me? It was in the thick brambles of what that I uncovered a backyard conversation between my Dad and I more than thirty years earlier. I was five years old. Dad denied saying something he most certainly had, then blamed me for getting it wrong. A pretty benign event in the everyday world of child rearing – until it plays out in front of an uncle that the kid totally worships. And that was it. One rogue moment in time became a cancer that would burrow its way into my bones; a twenty-two year nuclear war with the man who gave me life – and anyone I could paint his face on. I’ll never forget the way I felt the day it all came into focus for me. I wanted to vomit. It’s a feeling I’ve been getting a lot these days – whenever I read the national news.
The Canada I grew up in was one filled with a people who pushed words like “peacekeeping”, “environmentalism,” and “Human Rights” into the international lexicon. The first year I attended high school, every cool kid in the place wore the same pin on their sleeveless jean jacket: Free Afghanistan. It had only been one year since a conglomerate of communist countries invaded an ancient nation in western Asia, with the sole aim of bringing its untamed tribes into the fold of a centralized government of that conglomerate’s choosing. Every night at six o’clock, iconic B.C. newscaster Tony Parsons would decry the bloodshed of Afghan citizens while scorning the blatant propaganda of communist media organs. Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan sure has brought back a lot of those memories for me. What I can’t remember is whether Pravda ever advocated for a “Highway of Heroes.” It makes you wonder what buttons Russian high school kids are wearing.
Canadian politicians signing bombs to drop on an African nation that never raised as much as a voice against us; Canadian citizens howling for a return to the death penalty; Canadian corporations dealing death to developing nations; Canadian governments shepherding scorched earth industries, twenty years after Chernobyl. If ol’ Ronny Reagan was still alive, he might be excused for thinking that the “evil empire” had invaded everything upwards of the forty-ninth parallel. Regardless, I’m sure he’d be asking the same question I have lately as I look through a barred window on a country that I no longer recognize:
What the hell happened to the Great White North?
This would probably be a good place to insert a quote by some irreproachable statesman or historically cherished wise man — something about power corrupting or pride before a fall, or meeting the enemy and it is us. But twenty years of watching myself turn gray in an echo chamber have given me a few insights of my own. Surely the clearest of those is how bad it can go when the whole world is wrong except us – and the roads we can walk down to make ourselves believe it.