Matsqui Citizens Advisory Committee

In my volunteer role with M2 I had frequent meetings with inmates and also staff at Matsqui Institution. Very likely someone in a high position noticed that I was there on a fairly regular basis and decided I should be invited to join the Citizens Advisory Committee.

These committees were being developed in Canada’s federal prisons at that time, in response to public concerns about prison policies. Certainly the Temporary Absence Program was a concern in the Fraser Valley.

At the first meeting I found myself sitting around a large

Citizens Advisory Committee, Art Martens front row, 2nd from far right
Citizens Advisory Committee, Art Martens front row, 2nd from far right

boardroom table in a conference room. When introductions were made, I realized the others were all successful in business or a profession. Among the members was the owner of a real estate agency, a well known radio talk show host, a newspaper columnist, a parole officer and the executive director of MSA Community services. I was a truck driver and cat operator with a BA in sociology and political science. Unlike the others, I had no claim to fame. Also, other than being on the board of M2/W2, I felt I had little experience to compare with these elite members of the Abbotsford community.

When the head of the inmate liaison committee resigned after several months, the chairman surprised me by asking if I would take on that role. Very likely he reasoned that my prison experience would enable me to facilitate dialogue between inmates and the committee.

Eventually the chairman himself also resigned, due to business pressures. Even now I don’t understand why he decided to throw the mantel of leadership on my shoulders. My leadership track record was brief and unimpressive. It occurred to me much later he may have asked other, more capable committee members to take on the role, before approaching me. If others were asked, they may have said they had too much on their plate already.

There may have been another reason to turn down the position though. Prisons, even relatively modern ones like Matsqui, have an intimidating, oppressive presence. The high steel fence around the grounds and buildings immediately informs the visitor that security is taken seriously here. At each corner of the fence a tower with armed guards overlooks the prison and surrounding area. The visitor’s first close encounter with the prison’s intimidating presence is at an electronically controlled gate in the high perimeter steel fence. If the officer in the Guard House is preoccupied, the visitor may stand at the gate for a minute or two, wondering if the door will open. Next is the Guard House itself, where a uniformed officer pushes a sign-in book through a slot at the bottom of a sheet of glass. There may be invasive questions.

This was the routine at that time. I had grown accustomed to it but I could never totally relax. Sometimes a new officer, or an older grumpy officer was overly security conscious. I was always aware that bad judgment on my part in any way could result in being black listed by Security.
The members of our committee had agreed to an advisory role. They had no reason to seek significant involvement with the tightly regulated systems that functioned machine-like behind that high steel fence. Accepting the position of council chairman could entail greater involvement.

I was prepared to interact somewhat intimately with the rigid forces inside the fence because I knew some of the men living there. One of these was Roy. He had a step mother who didn’t want him to come around and a father who showed little interest in him. Albert, now in his sixties, had one sister, but she didn’t visit. Steve, who had killed two prostitutes, had no close friends in or out of prison. Robin had died recently of a knife attack in prison, but his own mother had refused to claim the body.

I felt a deep responsibility to the men behind the fence at Matsqui. Their faces were scarred by years of despair and apathy that comes from a drought of hope and meaning. They knew that when they were released, they would return to their former criminal haunts. The addicts would go to “the corner” to buy drugs for a fix. The entire time they would be looking back over their shoulder, wondering if they had been seen by a cop or a nark.

I accepted the responsibility of chairing the committee because I knew the men and their plight, and I wanted the community to be more informed and involved. Chairing the committee would give me greater access to the Warden’s office. I probably hoped this role would also give me increased credibility with other prison staff.

I didn’t have the skills or experience to chair the Citizens Advisory Committee, but the members and also the Warden and senior staff were gracious. By working together, we made a difference, and I learned a few lessons about leadership.


On The Board By Default

As coordinator of the M2 program at Matsqui Institution, I was more able to see what was happening at the Board and Executive Director level. The Board members were all individuals with demanding careers. Some had little or no time to sponsor an images (1)inmate. Like the Executive Director, they had been appointed by Richard Simmons, the American originator of the M2/W2 concept. A high energy visionary, Simmons had begun the program in Seattle, Washington. Charismatic and in a hurry to get things done, he had contacted several individuals in B.C. and with their help had managed to establish the program here.

We, the sponsors, respected the individuals on the Board, but some of us felt our views, ideas and front-line experience needed to be represented at the organization’s policy setting level. At times we weren’t entirely comfortable with decisions coming out of the fledgling office. M2/W2 was experiencing the growing pains common to a startup in any realm.

Wanting to maintain an amicable relationship with Board members and yet have an impact, we suggested two Board members be nominated and elected by sponsors. After considerable dialogue and some prodding on our part, they agreed this would be a positive move.

I had been in frequent conversation on this matter with fellow sponsor and friend, Hugh Wiebe. He was young, vigorous, and a force in his family’s agriculture related business. I felt he had the experience to represent sponsor views. He agreed to let me nominate him. It was with the understanding, however, that I would take his place on the Board for about three months so he could deal with a number of current business issues. I very much wanted him on the Board and I agreed to occupy his chair temporarily. The Board accepted this arrangement and at the next meeting of the organization, Hugh was one of 2 sponsors elected.

In the ensuing months I began to realize that Hugh’s responsibilities in the family company were increasing and I was concerned his considerable management experience might not become available to M2/W2. He wanted to take on the role and assured me the time would come. Unfortunately, business pressures never allowed him time to take his seat on the Board. I served his entire one year term and then let my name stand and was elected for another term. My leadership experience was limited but sponsors apparently felt I was committed to representing their views and desires.

I was willing to serve on the Board because it enabled me to influence our work in prisons. We hired Mel Cox, a balding, middle aged ex-con. Mel had embraced the Christian faith and came to us through the recommendation of his pastor. Having done time himself, he had a pretty comprehensive understanding of prison systems and of prisoners. His sense of humour and quick wit appealed to sponsors and also inmates. He provided us with a better understanding of inmate thinking and how to avoid being conned. Most of us had little experience with individuals whose lifestyle and circumstances made constant scheming a virtual necessity. Mel’s insights enabled us to become at least a little less naïve.

Sitting on the Board provided me with a basic understanding of how organizational decisions are often made, and what it takes to get things accomplished. The experience was of immense benefit in coming years when I became an M2/W2 staff member and also subsequently in other organizations. Whenever possible, I now advise young people to volunteer in an organization that provides solid training and practical leadership experience. My time as coordinator of the program at Matsqui Institution in a volunteer capacity, and also serving on the Board has convinced me that a volunteer investment is likely to pay generous dividends in the future. In my case it laid the foundation for work and life experiences that brought me a substantive sense of purpose, satisfaction and fulfillment.

Down the Tram Line to Party

The following account was told to Ruth Woodin of Hedley, by her father-in-law Barry Woodin. He was battling cancer and near the end of his life. He evidently never lost his sense of humour. She says he was more of a father to her than her own father ever was.

Barry and Jean Woodin were in their early twenties and just married, ready to contend with any challenge life would present to them. Barry applied for a job at the Nickel Plate Mine near the peak of Nickel Plate Mountain. He was hired and they moved into one of the homes on the mine site, about 6,000 feet above sea level.

It was a delight to them when they learned that each Saturday night the mine provided a tram down the mountain to the Hedley town site. Workers and spouses could catch a ride in empty ore

Ore cars on exhibit at Hedley Museum
Ore cars on exhibit at Hedley Museum

cars. The ore cars were small, not equipped with seats, and not comfortable. It was simply a means of rapidly descending the steep mountain to enjoy an evening of partying in a more civilized setting. The ride down the mountain in what was essentially an open metal box was not for the faint of heart.

Former Tram Line on Nickel Plate Mountain
Former Tram Line on Nickel Plate Mountain

On their first Saturday at the mine, Barry burst through the door of their home after work and said, “hurry Jean, I don’t want to miss the tram!” Jean was doing her hair and pampering her face. “Leave me alone Barry,” she said. “I’ll be ready when I’m ready.”

After working in the mine all week, Barry was eager to get away and have some fun. “The tram won’t wait for us,” he told her. “If you aren’t done with your prettyin’ in time, I’m going on my own.”

Maybe she didn’t believe he’d go without her. Or maybe it was a young bride’s way of asserting herself. We can only guess at her reasoning but she wasn’t ready when it was time to leave. Barry had not been bluffing. “Good bye Sweetheart,” he said. See you later.”

He found a party and danced well into the night. Then, in the early hours of the morning, the tram rattled noisily back up the steep grade of Nickel Plate mountain, returning the weary but satisfied partyers. When Barry arrived at his front door, he fumbled with the latch. The door seemed stuck. Had he had one drink too many? After fiddling determinedly with the latch, leaning against the door, speaking to it in terms I won’t repeat here, he paused to consider.

After a moment of reflection he understood the problem. Fortunately, even with the cold mountain air nipping at his face and bare hands, he saw the humour in this. “She’s locked me out,” he said with a chuckle. “Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

He went to the mine workshop and found an axe. Returning to the house, he began chopping at the rear door, which was also locked, until there was a hole large enough for him to squeeze through. Before going to bed he hung a blanket to cover the opening. It would remain in place until he was able to find another door.

In spite of this incident, and probably at least a few more, Barry and Jean remained happily married until his passing at age 52.

When Barry finished telling Ruth this little story he said with a wink, “she was never late again.” According to Ruth, Jean never disputed any of the details of Barry’s story.


Two Senior Boys On Motorcycles

When Linda and I pulled into the parking lot at Manning Park this past Monday morning, my attention was immediately drawn to a couple of motorcycles. The riders were chatting with a third individual, obviously also a bike enthusiast.

The two bikes interested me in part because they gleamed, as though they had just been taken out of a showroom. Of greater interest was that one had two wheels in front, something I don’t

3 Wheel Harley
3 Wheel Harley

recall seeing previously. The other was a Harley with two wheels in the rear.

While I was looking with great fascination and admiration at the first one, the owner came over and we talked a few minutes.

Bob told me the bike was made by Bombardier, with some custom

Art With Bob & His Bombardier
Art With Bob & His Bombardier

items. “The Bombardier suspension system gives it great stability,” he said, “I like the three wheel design. My left hip doesn’t have the strength anymore to support a two wheel bike.” He obviously felt pride in the machine’s performance capacity, but he gave no indication of wanting to boast.

“It’s obviously in great shape,” I observed. “Is it be pretty new?”

“I bought it three months ago,” he answered.

I have no inner compulsion to own such a bike but I did have a need to know what an impressive machine like this would cost. “About $30,000” he said with just the slightest reticence. Maybe a few people have expressed surprise he paid that much for a bike. A decent car can be bought for that kind of money. I wasn’t surprised though. It is a very special bike.

I was now permitting my curiosity free reign. “Does this fall into the category of what we call a mid-life crises?” I asked.

He smiled a little and said, “It’s probably more of a senior mid-life crises.” I had noticed that his neatly trimmed beard did appear to be greying somewhat.

They were from Chilliwack on their way to Princeton on a day ride. Just two senior boys who apparently had been financially prudent when they were younger. They’d had the smarts to set aside something so that now they were able to afford this expensive item on their bucket list. It’s pretty awesome that they have the health and also the chutzpah to do what a lot of us just dream about.

Bob, for me seeing those two intriguing motorcycles and talking with you certainly made it a memorable encounter. In retrospect, I realize now I should have asked a few more questions. But maybe there is enough here so the example of you and your friend will inspire some of us to risk more and live our dreams.

A Hot Summer Day In Hedley

July 12. It’s 11:05 in sunny downtown Hedley. 31 degrees on the front walkway, which is in the shade.

At about 8 a.m. Linda and I picked Saskatoons for breakfast. The air was still pleasantly cool when we sat on the side deck having Cheerios topped with slices of banana and Saskatoons. Usually breakfast consists of oatmeal with fruit, but now we choose not to warm the house with cooking.

We feel fortunate in being able to harvest the berries. Angelique bought this lot, which is directly across the street from her home, several years ago. The historic St. John’s church is on this site. Being interested in history, she commissioned our local historian, Jennifer Douglass, to research its past. Much of the lot is used for gardening and I have a pumpkin plant and about 12 potato plants growing on her huglebeet. Last year my pumpkin growing experiment there produced plenty of vines but only 2 pumpkins.

In spite of the Hedley heat, the two Cleopoatras and Miss Lonely Hearts enter the laying box faithfully virtually every morning. I stay away from their little domain until about 9:30 am. If they hear me while they are in the box, they abandon the laying because they think I’m there to give them their treat of dry oatmeal.

The girls are as seriously addicted to the oatmeal as an addict to heroin. The Cleopatras lay first, and while they are in the box, Lonely Hearts stands inside the gate of their fence, insistently calling for me to bring the treat. Then she goes into the box and the Cleopatras begin the vociferous pleading. Because Lonely Hearts is a slow layer, they become quite impatient. Although they have only small mouths, their volume is incredible. If we want to hear the computer, we have to close the rear windows.

Our small garden is doing well. We’ve finished eating the row of radishes. Lately it’s been bokchoy cabbage, spinach, beet leaves, arugula, kale, etc. Linda uses the produce in salads. I frequently snatch a leaf while working on an outdoor project. Marauding cabbage moths are a minor plague this year. Our neighbour Kim said moths and their dog Dixie have destroyed about 80% of their

Art Pursuing A Cabbage Moth
Art Pursuing A Cabbage Moth

garden. Last year I found a butterfly net with a long handle at the Princeton Dollar Store to snare the moths. My technique is improving and in spite of their clever evasive tactics, I’m averaging about a dozen kills per day. Of course, within 10 minutes of clearing the garden of them, another squadron swoops over the fence on either side and the destruction of plants continues almost without pause. Linda finds considerable humour in my wild leaping around and waving of the net. Fortunately as yet there is no “Moth Rights Society” here.

Due to the heat, Linda and I have been leaving for our walk at about 9pm. By this time the No See’ims are on the prowl. They must fast all day because they are ravenous. Currently we are experimenting with brown Listerine, rubbed on all exposed parts of the body. It does make a difference for about an hour. If we plan to stay out longer, we’ll have to carry the bottle with us.

I just looked at the thermometer. 37 degrees. A hot day in Hedley. It’s a good time to go to 20 Mile Creek and dangle our feet in the water.

Developing Skills And Credibility

My first year of coordinating the M2/W2 (Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman) program at Matsqui Institution was in a volunteer capacity. It never occurred to me to think that not being paid for this work was unfair. Although I didn’t realize it then, this year was providing me with experience and skills I would require in various challenging circumstances throughout my life. Particularly important was a growing understanding that in any setting, especially a prison but also in my personal life, it was essential I develop credibility.

Two Men In Conversation
Two Men In Conversation

Credibility came in part out of many conversations with counsellors, living unit officers, psychologists and other staff. It came also from scrupulously observing the numerous prison rules and regulations, although at times I did give expression to my disagreement with a particular policy.

It was this credibility on my part, and on the part of our sponsors, that enabled us to have a Christmas party away from the institution that first year. Most of the inmates in our program were given a temporary absence pass for the evening. Individual temporary absences for outings with sponsors were also granted to some men who had not been trusted with a pass previously. The men were aware that if they went A.W.O.L. while on a pass with their sponsor, it would bring disrepute to the entire program and possibly prevent other inmates from going out with their sponsor.

As part of the orientation of sponsors at each institution, they were specifically advised to not carry out anything unless it had been cleared by the prison censor. Some years later I heard of a sponsor, a woman of excellent integrity at a female unit elsewhere, who agreed to let an inmate mail a letter while on a temporary absence. The prison authorities learned of this and called her in for a serious grilling. She was deeply embarrassed.

I felt the temporary absence program was an important tool for easing inmates back into the community and frequently made the case for an inmate to receive a TA. However, if the man was a serious escape risk, or if he had repeatedly demonstrated bad judgment within the institution, I would not lend such support.

Steve, a large burly man who had killed a prostitute on two separate occasions, was such a case. He seemingly could not control his emotions or make sound decisions when under the influence of alcohol. When he asked me for a letter of support for day parole, I declined. In the time I had known him, I had seen little indication of serious inner change or growth and I was concerned that another woman might lose her life. He had been granted a temporary absence recently and, contrary to the conditions of the TA, he had gone to a prostitute with a bottle of vodka.

I was certain the Parole Board would question my judgment if I supported Steve with a letter. Also, prison staff participated in parole hearings and I felt my credibility with them would be tainted if I advocated for an inmate with his record both inside and outside the prison. To be taken seriously when I supported an inmate’s application for a TA or for parole, my judgment should not be in question.

The Matsqui Institution experience taught me that whether I am dealing with prison officials, a parole officer, a news reporter, or my wife, children or grand children, my personal credibility must be intact.



Hedley Celebrates Canada Day

Art Martens with Constable Pankratz
Art Martens with Constable Pankratz

“Meet your Mountie” was definitely a crowd pleaser at the Hedley Canada Day celebration. The event, which took place at the

Hedley Museum, featured gold panning, face painting and a treasure hunt for the children. There was also music that might be described as a combination of old time, folk and blue grass. A hamburger and hot dog barbeque made it a complete day.

When Constable Anthony Pankratz of the Princeton RCMP Detachment agreed to pose for photos with celebration attendees, the response was enthusiastic. At 6 feet, 8 inches, he towered above those standing next to him for a picture. One enraptured lady looked up into his face and exclaimed, “oh, he’s cute!”

Later, in an interview with the festivities MC, he regaled the crowd with his impressions of life as a Mountie in the Similkameen Valley. He said “the biggest challenge that comes with being a police officer in a small town is that I know a lot of the people I have a responsibility to deal with.”

Just before the singing of “O Canada” at noon, Bill Day, a former Citizenship Judge, addressed the audience. The essence of his message was that, “ Canada has done many things right, but we have been very wrong in the way we have dealt with First Nations people.”

The musicians, Colleen Cox and George Huber are popular entertainers on the Blue Grass circuit. From 11 am to 2 pm, with a couple of intermissions, they sang and played such favourites as “You are my Sunshine” and “Country Roads.” George and Colleen’s passion for music and love of people, plus their engaging personalities held the attention of the crowd to the end. For the last few tunes they were joined on stage by talented local musician Eric Lance. Ben Murbach provided a delightful impromptu flute solo during one intermission.

Prior to the formal program, local historian Jennifer Douglass conducted a guided tour of Hedley. She has published articles on the area and provided little known insights into Hedley’s past.

The barbeque grill was ably tended by veteran hotel chef and camp cook, Jim Gray. With his stetson and massive greying beard, Jim could be mistaken for a cowboy philosopher. He is currently providing meals at the museum from 10 am to 4 pm. every day except Tuesday. Salads, pickles, tomatoes, watermelon slices and Canada Day cupcakes were provided by town ladies. Five cent ice cream cones were again a popular item.

Comments at the end suggested that everyone went home well fed and happy.

Church Men Go To Prison

In the first year after receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree from matsqui2SFU, I didn’t earn a single dollar using this hard won education. I was not troubled by that. My volunteer activity at Matsqui Institution was, in essence, an unpaid apprenticeship in corrections. I was experiencing challenge and fulfillment, and there were plenty of opportunities for learning, exploring and growing. The experience I was gaining would prove to be of immense benefit once I became serious about launching a career. My working arrangement with Dad in his landscaping business allowed me considerable flexibility to attend to my M2 prison responsibilities.

Our program rapidly became known within the prison and the flow of applications increased at a rate that alarmed me. As yet we had none of the sponsors I had promised.

Persuading men to become the friend of an inmate proved to be more challenging than finding inmates who wanted to participate. Fortunately at some churches there were groups of men who invited me to come and present the opportunity to make a significant difference in someone’s life. Sometimes I was able to arrange for an inmate to accompany me to these sessions. I had found an exceptionally strong, patient sponsor for Roy, and he soon lost his stern expression and unfolded his massive arms. He was one of the men I took along at times. Although he remained silent during the meetings, he became quite willing to answer questions afterward.

On one occasion I arranged for several inmates to join me in a church group discussion about the corrections system and what was helpful for rehabilitation. One of the inmates I brought to this meeting was Albert, a man of about 60 with a lengthy prison record, much of it for drug possession and trafficking in heroin. In a group setting, Albert was relaxed and congenial, and he expressed himself coherently. Wearing a grey suit and striped tie, his appearance, bearing and speech were entirely distinguished.

One of the church men arrived late. After the meeting he said to me, “I’m really impressed that the warden came.” I was puzzled at this. The warden had not been there. From his description, I realized he thought Albert was the warden. Certainly Albert’s appearance and demeanour could have caused anyone to conclude he was a highly placed official at Matsqui. As a prisoner, he was responsible and his capabilities were exceptional. Unfortunately, out of prison this gifted man had always reverted quickly to his street mentality. On the street he saw himself only as a user and seller of heroin.

I knew a lot of men would be intimidated by the thought of developing a relationship with a man doing prison time. How would they possibly find anything to talk about with someone who had long been confined behind a high perimeter fence? Some were also concerned about their own safety and that of their family.

To counter the various anxieties, I began inviting individual men to go with me to visit an inmate who wanted a sponsor. I phoned a man I had gone to school with but hadn’t talked with in years. I also approached a successful businessman who had previously been with CBC television. Another was a tradesman I didn’t know well but respected highly. I was pleasantly surprised when each agreed to go to the prison with me And, like many others, each decided to sponsor the man they visited. Once they met the individual and talked with him, they realized that this man had many of the same desires, concerns and needs they had. It became an effective strategy and it meant I could select men I believed had sound judgment and would be dependable.

In time, the decision makers at Matsqui came to believe that our sponsors were of good character and would not assist inmates in anything contrary to prison regulations. This gave us considerable credibility and sponsors were able to take inmates out on day passes when they became eligible. Often they took them to their homes for a meal and to meet their family.

Almost without exception, inmates were grateful for these excursions beyond the high, confining prison fences and did not take advantage of their sponsor. The relationship gave them an opportunity to view life in mainstream society. The experience challenged their thinking and in some cases persuaded them this was a life they too could have. Although they would find that straightening out their badly bent lives was difficult, they had someone willing to walk along this path at their side, possibly for the first time.

Need For Miracles At Matsqui Institution

When I graduated from SFU, I didn’t immediately look for work where I could apply what I had learned. During my 4 years at the university, I had put in quite a lot of time with Dad in his landscaping business. My role had mostly been to operate a John Deere front end loader and deliver top soil, sand, and gravel with a dump truck. Knowing Dad had more work than he could look after alone, I decided to stay with him temporarily.

I arranged a meeting with Doug McGregor to give him a copy of the paper I had written, based on my research at Matsqui Institution. I told him about M2/W2 and asked if he would consider having the organization set up a program at Matsqui.

“Do you think this is the answer to problems with inmate rehabilitation?” he asked. I wondered later if this had been his way of ascertaining how naïve I was in regard to prison issues.

“We don’t claim it will solve all problems,” I replied. “I do believe though that if an inmate has a friend in the community, he won’t feel as isolated from mainstream society. An M/2 Sponsor would commit to visit him once every two weeks. He and his family and friends could be a positive influence in his life. When the inmate is paroled, the sponsor might be able to assist him in finding employment.”

Although he didn’t say anything, I sensed that Doug was listening intently. “In cases where a solid relationship is developed,” I continued, “ the man doing time has someone of good character in his life. This means he doesn’t have to feel as dependent on his past criminal associations. Some men recognize that they need to sever those connections completely, but that certainly doesn’t happen in every case.”

Doug asked a few more questions and then agreed to meet with Ray Coles, the executive director of M2/W2. Several weeks later Ray asked if I would consider coordinating the program at Matsqui in a volunteer capacity. I had derived considerable satisfaction from doing the research at the institution, and although there would be no remuneration, I felt this was a good move for me. It would enable me to gain further experience in corrections. My interest was in the realm of rehabilitation, not in becoming part of the bureaucracy and being enmeshed in its often stifling web.

A few days later I requested a meeting with interested inmates. The staff liaison, who coordinated the activities of the various groups coming into the institution, recognized the benefit of having inmates interact with citizens from the community. She advertised the program among the inmate population and invited interested individuals to attend an informational meeting with me. This meeting took place in one of the institutions’ classrooms. At the time inmates were able to upgrade to a high school level education, something they frequently lacked. Several university courses were also offered.

The meeting attracted just over a dozen men. Some were simply curious or looking for a break from prison tedium. Others desperately hoped for something that would halt the downward trend of their lives. The men straggled in, usually one at a time, all clad in the drab grey prison uniforms. As though hoping not to be noticed, each cautiously took a seat as close to the rear of the room as possible. Prison life had tutored them in the art of distrust.

They observed me furtively. Only two or three made even minimal eye contact. These were hardened, discontented, discouraged men who had known mostly failure. Sexual and physical abuse was a common thread in their history. Feeling alone, unappreciated and unloved, they desperately needed a miracle. Of course, they didn’t have the capacity to believe in miracles.

For these desolate men heroin, cocaine and alcohol were the only means of escaping from the sorrow and rage that simmered deep within.  Even for the younger ones, the time had passed when they would willingly make the effort to change and grow. Looking into these disconsolate faces and sensing their lack of ability to believe, I felt a powerful urge to bring into their lives men who might be able to help them accept that good things were still possible.

Several days later, I received seven applications for a sponsor. Among them were three I particularly recall.

One was Steve, a large sombre man of about 55 who had two times killed a prostitute in a drunken rage. He was doing life. He’d need help if he was to get out of prison before he was too old to care. The damage done to his psyche in earlier years was immense. In the time I knew him, I never saw him smile.

Also in attendance at the meeting was Roy, a balding, barrel chested stocky man of about 40. He had come early to secure a seat at the very back of the room. He sat through the entire meeting with his arms folded across his chest and his face radiating distrust. Everything about him suggested extreme skepticism, lack of hope and a strong measure of defiance. I doubted he’d want anything to do with our program but I instinctively felt that if he did, he would be difficult.

Al, doing significant time for an armed robbery in which he had shot a policeman in the leg, also applied for a sponsor. His most recent contact with his parents had been a 45 minute visit six years ago at Stony Mountain Prison in Manitoba. Although he was only 36, he already thought of himself as a hard core con. He spoke out of the side of his mouth and his attitude and values were those of a man who has spent many years behind prison bars.

Looking through the applications, I was mystified when I saw the name of Roy, who had placed an impenetrable wall of reserve and skepticism between himself and me. He did prove to be a handful, as I guessed, but not in the way I had expected. In fairness to him, each of the others also proved to be extremely difficult. In spite of the challenges though, several of the relationships that developed from this first meeting would last a decade or more. As in every other prison, miracles at Matsqui Institution were scarce, but at times we got close.


Meriam Ibrahim Still Needs Our Help

Late yesterday Linda and I read an online report stating that an appeals court had released the Sudanese Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim and her children from prison. This morning we read that the Sudanese National Intelligence Security Service had re-arrested Meriam and her 2 young children and her husband at a Sudanese airport.

We listened to the CKNW news this morning, hoping to learn more. There was no mention of this situation. I called the station’s news room, told Gord McDonald what I had heard and asked if CKNW was going to shed more light on this issue. He promised to get it on their news.

I admit that often when I feel something is wrong, I hesitate to express my concern publicly. Sometimes I question my own thinking. Is my concern valid? Will others consider it foolish?

At times our timidity prevents us from drawing attention to a government or corporate policy that is hurting vulnerable individuals. Hurricane Rubin Carter believed that “the most powerful enemy of justice is inertia.” A racially charged trial cost him 20 years in the Trenton State Prison for 3 murders committed by someone else. Surely there must have been individuals who realized that the process was flawed and that this innocent man needed people to speak loudly on his behalf.

When we allow the media to guide our thinking, we tend not to question whether a matter is being dealt with fairly or justly. And even when we realize that something should be done, we expect someone else to do it.

If the problem isn’t resolved rapidly, we are diverted from it by the next issue being reported by the media. The case of the Nigerian girls who were abducted is a prime example. Is the Nigerian government still looking for them? They assured parents they would find them. But now the media has lost interest and the government no longer feels international pressure.

We become complacent so easily. We are quickly diverted. We are fearful and hesitant. This permits base, corrupt, dishonest individuals to carry on with their nefarious schemes. An ancient Israeli poet once asked, “if the foundations are destroyed, what can good citizens do?”

In the game of life, we cannot be bystanders. At this writing, it is not known where the family has been taken. Whatever country we live in, each of us can ask our national government to press Sudan to release them. Meriam Ibrahim and her family, and many others, desperately need our help in drawing attention to their plight.


A small town perspective on people, community, politics and environment.