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'A no holds-barred Elder': How one man is helping to heal his Indigenous community

Donald Prince is a counselor and the former Executive Director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation. In this first-person story, he shares past experiences with violence, justice, and addiction. Being a father and writing poetry were crucial steps towards healing. His story is part of a series told by Indigenous people from Yellowknife, Canada, in partnership with the Global Reporting Centre.

For full production credits visit Global Reporting Centre.


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: We've been bringing you a series of stories told by Indigenous people from Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories. In partnership with the Global Reporting Centre, they are sharing their stories of life, addiction and recovery.

Donald Prince is a counselor and the former Executive Director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation. In this first-person story, he shares his past experiences with violence, the justice system and addiction. And, how being a father and writing poetry were crucial steps towards his healing.

Donald Prince: I walked through the empty city. My soul is hurt and torn. I'm surrounded by loneliness. Why was I even born? I wish I could find a way out of this world of violence. I cry out at night and I hear only the silence.

I remember I was about probably 10 years old, just when I started school, I started drinking. The feelings of fear and insecurity and not feeling a part of, and all this other stuff sort of went away. When I drank, fights, I remember a lot of fights. My dad was a big guy, so he was always screaming and yelling and different things like that, the cops coming.

Reality, dirty breath in his face. He's back in line. Thoughts gone, food coming. Boy, I'm sure hungry. Been standing in line for years. Hope they don't see me.

I used to get picked on in school by all these bullies, they used to wait for us. And the biggest guy, they came after me and I stabbed him in the face. I cut him right from his mouth right up to his ear. The cops came, they picked me up that night and threw me in jail.

He stands in the line and hides his face. Keeping up to the others, doesn't lose his place. He stares at the holes in his shoes. Dirty pants, stale shirt. Hey, move it, buddy. What are you dreaming about, wine?

Ended up in jail again, '89, but these couple of guards, they said, Prince, when in the hell are you going to learn, when you're going to smarten up, you know? I said, yeah, yeah, but I don't know what the hell I thought, I seemed like I can't. I don't know what the hell's going on with me. So anyway, one of them said, Well, why don't you start writing some of this stuff down? Write it out. And I thought, OK. So I went back and I started writing and I wrote about how I felt about love and about hate and about anger and wishing for a better life and wishing for a love that was true or wishing for, you know, have my kids in my life and things like that, right?

Well, I remember when my oldest daughter, Crystal was born I just held her and looked at her and I said, I will never do the things to you that were done to me and I never did. For the first 14, 15 years of her life, I was never there much. One time Paula was in jail, the guard comes up to me and says your daughter phoned, there's an emergency. She said that Amanda got run over, Amanda, my younger daughter, she was five years old. So I'm on the phone and I said, well, is she OK? And all I can hear is crying on the other end. And I thought, she's dead. I thought my daughter was dead. Finally, Crystal was able to talk, and she said, no, she's in pretty bad shape, she in a hospital, but she's going to make it. But I remember going and walking away on that phone call, thinking, you know, what the hell kind of a dad am I? You know, my kid's 500 miles away, ran over, the other one's getting in trouble. What the hell is wrong with me? You know, why? What's the matter with me?

Strange, foolish desires. They come over me. I feel the chains tighten. I am no longer free.

I went and saw this drug and alcohol counselor. He says, Well, I just want to know what people did to you. I said, What do you mean? He said, What did people do to you when you were a kid? And holy ----, that blew me away. You know, nobody ever asked me what happened to me. You know, they always want to know what a bad guy I was. And I look back now, that was the key. That was the key to locking all the unlocking, all that bitterness and hate, anger I had for the world. I haven't had a drug or a drink since.

We provide a place where people can get help, whether that be counseling or traditional healing or traditional medicine, ceremonies, different things like that. We don't follow any Western way of doing things, we do things our way, the Indian way. We don't have anybody who works here was not Aboriginal.

Ruth Mercredi: Every tribe has their own medicines and their own land, you know, so we utilize our own medicines here. We know that people are going through a lot of pain and they're feeling so good when they leave here.

Donald Prince: Western counseling that we set up, you got to go into a counseling session. You speak for 50 minutes or something like that and that's it. Out here, anybody can come any time they want for as long as they want. Talk with somebody for a little while, go have something to eat, relax a little bit, talk again. When people are allowed to be what they are, say what they want and do what they want, they're more likely to open up about something that's going on with them.

Stanley Cook: Unlike other organizations, these people said, Come on, it's OK. If you fall down, come join us, sit down, have coffee, have tea. Donald is a no-holds-barred elder. He'll tell you exactly the way it is. He cares so much for individuals. I learned quite a bit off of him. I learned how to stand up for myself then. Growing up in a residential school, your voice, your spirit is taken away. But working with him and in this camp has given me my spirit back.

Donald Prince: What motivates me is success, you know, and seeing people like Stanley or Inuk who are sober today and they have good lives. Their kids have good lives. Their grandkids have good lives.

I've let go of the dark side. There's going to be better days. Things are looking better now since I've changed my evil ways. Sometimes the temptation is not easy. It's hard for me to abide it. But I don't let it get me down. I just push it all aside. I'm focusing on the good times and keeping an open mind. I'm going to look ahead of me. The past is all behind.

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