VANCOUVER – “Welcome to the worst district you will ever see in Western Canada. Why would you come here?”
On a balmy Thursday night in one of the most infamous drug addiction communities in the country, the reason for coming doesn’t really require the question from the resident of the derelict Regent Hotel.
The answer? Education. The subjects? Four veteran members of the Okotoks Oilers taking in a typical weeknight in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – a condensed sliver of blocks close to high-priced penthouse condos housing 9,000 to 9,500 individuals who by and large have fallen into the trappings of hardcore drug addiction.
Before hitting the streets with Vancouver’s Odd Squad – a collection of plain-clothes police officers, some still members of the Vancouver Police Department and some who’ve retired from the full-time beat – and two members of the Okotoks RCMP, the Oilers got a crash course in drugs, gangs and a culture they’ve never come across with Project Keep Straight. A high-speed boat tour with the Vancouver Police Department’s marine unit would be the second-rockiest ride of the day for the squad.
The evening walk through the East Hastings corridor quickly hit all the senses.
Row upon row of stolen goods – the returns from the property crime addicts use to fuel their several-hundred-dollar per day addiction – littered the streets with everything from watches, jewelry, high-end fashion to electronics.
Nervous jaunts down dark alleyways brought forward several users more than willing to share their stories with the young hockey players.
The Oilers will be presenting what they learned about drug use and drug addiction to junior high students in Okotoks in the coming months.
“It was a surreal experience. It almost felt like I was watching myself go through the experience and seeing it in real life for the first time,” said Oilers forward Carter Huber. “It is one thing to watch it on TV, but to see the poverty and the actual situation the people were in for me was a major eye-opener.”
Everyone has a back-story and the common thread – choices.
Rock cocaine was smoked in plain sight in front of the players and officers before they moved up the block and arrived on a 30-year-old former hockey player.
The man from nearby Coquitlam spoke of how he dabbled in cocaine at the age of 14 after seeing serious addiction issues with his father. He sells dope to support his habit and has lost friends and a recent girlfriend to the fentanyl epidemic.
“I started hanging out with the wrong guys, one thing led to another and I was down here,” he said. “It’s just a f**ked-up lifestyle. I’ve been trying to get out of it for years. It’s a grind, it’s a struggle every day.
“Stick with your hockey. I wish I could go back and start my life over.”
A few blocks over another meeting hit home.
The group walked up on a dope-sick 26-year-old woman in the process of injecting a heroin needle in her arm. After some coaxing from one of the police officers on scene, she shared she had at least one thing in common with the Oilers.
The young lady said she too was from Okotoks and was a straight-A student in school.
She’s a relative newcomer to the scene, having been a resident of the Downtown Eastside for just one year. Within four days of arriving in the community she had to save the life of a friend who was overdosing.
Nothing mattered to her but getting high. She spoke of her willingness to sell her own grandmother to get the fix she needed.
It was a lot for the Oilers to take in.
“All of the sights and sounds, smells and everything,” said Huber. “That girl from Okotoks, seeing how bad she needed the drugs. She literally couldn’t talk to us until she shot up right in front of us.”
The players met a plumber who had a $1,400 per month apartment in Burnaby and was a functioning addict – until he wasn’t anymore. They were introduced to Donny, a former professional soccer player who, after several car accidents, found himself disabled, had 400 stitches from violent incidents in the Middle East and was now dependent.
“I’ve been here before. That wasn’t the first time I’ve got to see all of that,” said Const. Jeff Girard with the Okotoks RCMP Crime Reduction Unit. “It doesn’t have any less of an impact on me at all. The people you see, that’s still the worst in their life. The sounds when we were in that apartment and people were fighting down the halls, those are the things that stick with you.”
The effects of trauma were reinforced all evening.
Downtown Eastside resident Kimberley shared that she moved down to the area some six years ago from Prince George after her old man committed suicide. She has a $200 per day crack cocaine addiction and recently had a cousin endure a fatal overdose one block over from what she described as a tiny little crumb of fentanyl.
“I was honestly scared. I cannot imagine walking through there without being with five cops and three of them with guns, I would not have been able to do with just a group of four people,” said Oilers winger Kyle Gordon. “It surprised me how trapped they were.
“They would say don’t do this, I wish I didn’t, I wish I could get out, but they just can’t. That is crazy for me because they were good people, they talked to you.”
Through the first five months of the year there were 525 illicit drug overdose deaths with fentanyl detected in British Columbia. The drug was detected in 78 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths in that period.
“More than it was scary, you were just alert always,” said Oilers forward Tanner Laderoute. “You had no idea what could be coming. At the start it was pretty nerve-wracking.
“Talking to them, it’s sad you think they’re different, but they’re the same as us. Just a couple different choices and they went down the wrong way. A lot of them are as nice as can be and just made the wrong choice.”
Oilers defenceman Kylor Wall said the openness of the Downtown Eastside’s residents was surprising.
“It’s crazy how people were willing to share,” Wall said. “Even knowing he’s a cop and they were totally okay with sharing they had drugs in their system or might have some of them on them.
“They needed it that badly that they didn’t even care he was around. It was really sad, honestly.”
Making up just 3.2 per cent of Vancouver’s population, the Downtown Eastside is home to 55 per cent of the violent crime in Canada’s third largest city.
“As beat cops we see young people,” said Mark Steinkampf, a 27-year veteran of the VPD. “Drug addicts, a lot of them are good people that just made bad choices.
“It doesn’t matter which part of society you come from, but whether you open the door.”
The path towards drug addiction takes many roads, though much of it comes through peer pressures, family use, the masking of psychological pain and a lack of coping skills, he added.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, but how you deal with it,” Steinkampf said. “I’m traumatized. How could I not be? I know there is nothing I can do about what happened to me. Trauma, I use it as a tool on my belt.”
Steinkampf also warned of what he called the ‘4-20 science’ seeping into society.
“It has done a really good job of pushing their agenda,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of grow-ops and there is nothing natural about today’s marijuana other than it has roots.
“The human brain doesn’t stop developing until 23, 24. People are susceptible to schizophrenia, anxiety and depression.”
Drugs are often mixed with other drugs to increase the potency and likelihood of a repeat visit to a dealer. A dispensary in the city was found to have traces of morphine in its marijuana.
Approximately 82 per cent of cocaine is believed to be mixed with levamisole, a chemical farm product that kills human white blood cells. Fentanyl, incredibly inexpensive to produce, and heroin can be combined to cut costs.
Users often don’t know what they’re smoking, snorting or injecting.
“If you make the choice, once it’s in your body all bets are off,” Steinkampf said.
The benefactors of the drug trade — the increasingly violent and unorganized Vancouver area gangs — often follow the same path of rapid rise and even quicker fall.
“That’s the truth, jail, death, drug addiction. It’s not just a cool lifestyle you can walk away from,” said retired VPD officer Doug Spencer. “Schools should have better information on drugs and gangs. Maybe one kid at a presentation is enough to keep them. It’s way better helping one kid than putting one thousand in jail.”
Another presenter spoke to the consequences of gang activity first hand.
Joe Calendino, a former Hells Angels member turned youth activist, saw his short and fast life as a gangster lead to residency on the Downtown Eastside as one of thousands of addicts in the area.
Ironically, one of Calendino’s friends growing up, Kevin Torvik, ended up on the other side of the coin as a VPD gang task force member.
The officer later helped Calendino kick the habit and find a purpose. Calendino launched YoBro YoGirl youth initiative as a drug and gang preventative program. The program is seen by as many as 1,000 students per week in the Lower Mainland.
“All youth are at risk,” he said. “None of the big gang members in B.C. were from at-risk families, they came from good homes.
“Kids empower kids, it’s all about them. The message, take it back, make it real and make it your own. Kids are very in tune with bullshit. Everyone has a story. You all have a story. It’s how we work collectively together that’s going to change where we’re at. Equip kids with the tools to say no, to make proper choices.”
The message was received by the Oilers players, of that there is no doubt. Now it’s up to them to relay the information to junior high school students in the area in the coming months.
“We’re going to try and get the message across as best as we can and try to give them knowledge,” Gordon said. “I’m a lot older than all the kids we will be talking to and I still had no clue, I was uninformed about it so it would be nice to get them more knowledgeable at a younger age.”
Cpl. Darryl Dawkins, with the Okotoks RCMP said he’s glad to have members in the CRU and GIS (general investigative section) who are proactive in educating the local youth about drug awareness.
It’s a task the players are taking seriously.
As high-profile athletes in the community, they have a voice with the impressionable students.
“The biggest thing I felt was empathy for them,” Huber added. “Almost all the people we ran into would give us the time of day and when we heard them out a lot of them were nice people at the core and just made some really bad decisions or got dealt a really bad hand and ended up there.
“This experience was really good for takeaways we can bring back. Now more than ever it’s a message kids need to hear because of the digital age and all that it is pretty easy to fall into the wrong groups or wrong habits. It is an important message we need to spread in Okotoks.”