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Interview with Kerry Gladue: Director of Indigenous Relations and Client Services at Simon House

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Originally published in the May/Jun 2023 Edition of the Bowest’ner
By Tess Van Den Bosch and Logan Renaud 

Simon House Recovery Centre was founded in 1982 and began its work in a Bowness duplex that still serves men in need today. Today, Simon House provides 67 beds for men working to overcome addiction.

The BCA’s Community Development Coordinator Tess Van Den Bosch recently sat down for this powerful conversation with Simon House’s Director of Indigenous Relations and Client Services, Kerry Gladue.

Please note that this interview contains mature themes regarding racism, trauma, residential schools, violence, drug use, and sexual abuse.

Tell us a bit about your story.

My name is Kerry Gladue. My spirit name given to me by a Tsuu T’ina elder is Shaganappi, which means Rawhide Rope.

I grew up as a second generation residential school survivor — my mom was raised in residential school from two-and-a-half-years old up until the school closed around 1961. She went through all of the traumas that we hear about. The sexual abuse, the beatings, all that stuff — it’s all true. There was a lot of addiction and trauma in my mom’s life as I grew up. There were abusive boyfriends who beat her, me, and my brother.

I learned at a very young age that it’s not safe to express your identity being Native. At school I used to get called things like “dirty Indian, or “wagon burner.” I was fighting all the time, I didn’t go to school much, and eventually ran away. I was apprehended as a youth and I grew up in the social services system. At age 13 I was placed in a group home in Edmonton where I was sexually abused by a social worker. I went through all that trauma and shame around my identity, and I grew up wondering if something was wrong with me, or if I had done something wrong.

But now when people ask where I grew up I say, “well, I’m from Edmonton, but I grew up at Simon House.” I was a 41 year old child when I came here on February 17 2012 from the Calgary Remand Centre, and I’ve been clean and sober for 12 years.

How did your journey lead you to Simon House?

I was involved with an organized crime ring creating counterfeit documents. I was hooked on crystal meth and I was facing over 300 charges in the province of Alberta. Then one day my mom called on the phone and said, ‘You’ve got to come home. I need to talk to you.’ And I could tell from her voice that something was wrong.

I told her, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it home. I think I’m going to jail.” Because right at that moment, I was being surrounded by the RCMP. They were trying to come into my motorhome, and I argued with them that they needed a warrant because it’s actually a house! That was my thinking, but it worked and they let me drive out of town.

I went right home to mom and she told me she had cervical cancer and sixty days to live. I broke down crying and said, ‘Mom, I’ll quit the drugs. I’ll quit everything. I’ll give you whatever you need.” But I watched my mom whittle away. And when she died in her living room, I closed her eyes in her bed, gave her a hug, and said I’ll see you soon — because I was ready to die too.

Soon after that, my little sister Selina died. She was 30 years old and overdosed. So I had just lost my mom and sister, and my family had only been them and my little brother all my life. Then the day my brother came home with my sister’s ashes, I overdosed and collapsed on the floor. I was there vibrating against the wall, and I looked up and saw he was holding the box of ashes.

My brother didn’t say anything, but I looked in his eyes and saw him thinking, “You’re going to leave me too.”

So I got up and I called a friend and asked for a ride downtown. I had planned on overdosing and dying and meeting my mom. But I went into the police station and I turned myself in.

Jessica use this

Kerry today with his wife Shannon and daughter Gracy.

Active Addiction Kerry

Kerry in active addiction over a decade ago.

I had never detoxed in my life, and I was grieving. And I was still going through all the other stuff I’d never dealt with in my life. Now going to jail? I thought I’d probably never get out.

I was in the Calgary Remand Centre, and had been in my room for about a week. My lawyer came and he told me, ‘I’ve sat in courtrooms for a lot of years, and I’ve never sat in one for as long as it took to read all your charges. An 11 year sentence is probably a good place to start.’ I went back up into my cell and I picked up the book that was in my room. I’m not religious so to say, but this was a different version of the Bible that I could understand. And I opened it up and I read, ‘If you pray with all your heart and soul Kerry, I will answer you, just ask me.’ So I got on my knees and I started praying and crying and yelling at the Creator. I said, ‘Why did you do all this to me? Why did you take my mom and my sister?’ Please give me a second chance. Just a second chance, I’ll do good.’

That was 12 years ago and I’ve kept that promise. And part of that promise now is doing the best I can to help people. When I first came to Simon House, I’d never been to a treatment centre before. I was sent here by the Calgary Drug Treatment Court and just came to get out of jail. But when I came here, I knew the Creator was giving me that second chance. When I first got here, I was a full blown crystal meth addict with paranoia. I thought all the helicopters over Bowness were for me! But the people who worked here immediately understood me and knew how to help me. I had to go through the process, and I had to look at myself and make a lot of amends. But even when Simon House was struggling for funding, they went above and beyond to make sure we had everything no matter what. They saved my life and they continue to do that today.

I came from the streets. I slept in alleys. I ate out of McDonalds garbages. I shoved needles in my neck. I’ve witnessed death. But today I get to witness life. I get to see people change, and I get to share my story.

How do you see people’s lives changing at Simon House?

I witness grown men that owned homes and had businesses coming here in tears off the street. They’ve lost everything, and often their family doesn’t want to talk to them. Sometimes when people walk through our doors we have to give them a half a cup of coffee because they’re so shaky they’ll spill. People come in here just rough looking and when we see them leave, you don’t even know who they are! They’ve got haircuts and different clothes, they’re feeling good about themselves, and their self-esteem is coming back. They’re walking around with their homework books and talking about what they’re learning. And they’re admitting stuff about themselves openly and learning how to trust.

Nobody wants to be in active addiction, and nobody asks for it. So we help people understand that and help them not be ashamed of it. A lot of people don’t want to come into treatment at first. They think ‘that’s for the other people,’ but it’s for anybody that needs help.

We have a graduation on the last Wednesday of every month at the Bowness Senior Center. Someone was told he’d never be allowed to drive again because of his addiction, and he’s a professional truck driver now! And the guys who thought they’d never talk to their families or see their kids again? They’re up there with their families holding their kids. Seeing that is more of a reward than anything.

How did you get involved working with Simon House, and tell us about the Indigenous Recovery Program?

I came here for treatment and I never left. I’ve been working here for 11 years now. I had brought up the idea of an Indigenous program before, and we never did anything with it. But I felt we needed it because we hardly had any Indigenous clients coming here at all. This comes back to colonization and the residential school system. There’s no trust, and I don’t blame people for that since I was that guy too.

But then our CEO Dr. John Rook came on right as those first 215 little children were found. And he walked into my office teary-eyed and he said ‘Kerry, we have to do something to help. Do whatever you need to do.’

And so here we are. We’ve got a ceremony room here, we have a teepee, we have an elder, we have an Indigenous counselor, an Indigenous liaison — we’ve had 118 Indigenous folks graduate the program in just the past year! They needed a place that they could trust because the residential school system and colonization took so much away.

The Indigenous program at Simon House is open to all of our clients. We have non-Indigenous clients who sign up and want to be a part of it because of its spirituality. We’re open to all different backgrounds and religious practices, and we want to give our clients different options, whatever works for helping people reconnect with the spirituality that they might have let go of because of their addiction.

Tell us about your family and about the Indigenous Family Reunification Program.

I have 10 kids, plus grandchildren. I have a wife named Shannon who works in the same field, and we have a beautiful five-year-old daughter named Gracy. I didn’t grow up with grandparents because the residential school took away all that. But the residents of the Bowness Senior Centre are our grandparents, and they call us their grandchildren here. Every year they do drives for donations and put together Christmas stockings for our clients with items they knit. And some of these guys have never experienced that. They don’t know Christmas, they don’t know family, and they don’t know the connection. So there are a lot of tears shed here.

When all those children were being found, they woke the world and they woke the country. They just found 159 on a single acre where my mom grew up. But before she died, my mom took us to the place. She pointed there and said, ‘There are some kids over there.’ She knew.

And so we thought about how 70% of kids in government care are Indigenous as a result of all that stuff. We said what can we do? So we started the Indigenous Family Reunification Program.

It’s a unique program because couples usually can’t get into treatment at the same time. So if a dad graduates from Simon House and we return him back home to mom who is still in active addiction, what are we really doing? He’s just going to come back to us again.

So we partnered with another treatment center that takes women and young children to get them both into treatment at the same time. So if a client has kids, the kids can go with mom, and the family can do treatment together. We get them into a parenting course and family counseling with an elder, and then we graduate them together.

We have our second IFRP graduates coming up this month. They have a baby now and there’s a baby on the way. They’ve got a place and she’s in school taking business management.

Tell us about the power of community connection, and the upcoming community Pow Wow at the BCA.

We have a saying that connection is the opposite of addiction, and the opposite of addiction is connection.

Our clients aren’t always chatty when they come in. But after a while, they’re laughing and building friendships with people on the same path. They want to get better and do things right by going out to volunteer in the community or even just getting in a van and shoveling snow around the neighborhood.

Now we’ve partnered up with the BCA, Closer to Home, and the Calgary Police Service to hold our first annual open family Pow Wow for the community of Bowness. We just want to show our gratitude to the community by making it a day to remember full of events and support.

We’ll have traditional dancers, little tot dancers, drummers, round dance, an MC — we expect a huge turnout and it’ll be lots of fun!

What are some ways folks in the community who are reading this can support Simon House?

Treatment is free for our clients, so people can contact our front desk for opportunities to financially sponsor clients through their treatments.

And we always are in need of item donations. We get guys that come here with nothing. So if you want to be part of what they leave with, we welcome that. We are providing clothing, toiletries, jackets, furniture — anything that someone thinks we might be able to use, we will take it and we can use it.

Is there anything else that you’d want to say to the community?

We would like to thank the community from our hearts for their amazing support over many years. A lot of people don’t even know we’re here, but now they know the big teepee and can say, ‘that’s the place!’ When the teepee first went up, we had people on social media saying ‘take that garbage down, you’re tarnishing the community.’ But there were even more people in the community saying ‘we love it!’ And it’s been amazing the support we’ve had.

We’re happy to be here, and we’re proud to be in a community with this much support because this doesn’t work just everywhere. It takes a special community and a lot of heart to make a place like Simon House work, and it takes that connection and community to save lives. Faith, hope, and love — that’s what’s in Bowness, and that’s why we’re here.

 

A community Pow Wow took place at the BCA on May 6, presented by Closer to Home, Calgary Police Service, and Simon House Recovery Centre, with support from the BCA, and the Community Hubs Initiative: a partnership between The City of Calgary and United Way of Calgary with Rotary as a founding partner.

Kerry’s book Second Changes: The Kerry Gladue Story can be ordered here

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