Street companions Calvin Bonnetrouge aka. Peanut and Floyd Tetso | Photo by Mark Rendell
That’s not to say there isn’t conflict. Shirley tells me close friends have robbed her when they were drunk. And the closeness in the community can also be an impediment to staying sober.
“It’s pretty hard to stay dry, when you have lots of bros and friends, all of them drinking,” says John. “You try to stay on top of it, and everyone is trying to put you down. They say, ‘you think you’re better than us because you’re not drinking.’”
Both John and Shirley have gone through rehab numerous times. John remembers staying sober for two weeks after going to Alberta’s Poundmakers Lodge Treatment Centre in 1991. Shirley was dry for 35 days in 2011 after treatment in Hay River. She started drinking when she got back to Yellowknife.
“Your friends haul you down to the same level as them,” she says. “They haul you down to nothing.”
Alcohol seems to be the one constant substance in the community. Some do drugs – crack is popular with younger people, says John – though it’s predominantly liquor for the older crowd. And not just wine and vodka. Listerine, Lysol, aftershave and hairspray work as well, he says.
“It’s just alcoholism,” Shirley says. “Though it gets to the point where I want to give up.”
Everyone I speak to, without exception, is open about his or her alcoholism. Most started drinking young, with friends or family. Many grew up with alcoholic parents.
“Dad used to wake me up at one o’clock in the morning, just to sit up with him while he drank. I didn’t even drink. I was 12 years old,” says John. “He’s older now, and I forgive him. I pray to God, but it hurts, you know.”
Violence, shame and residential schools are other refrains I hear throughout the day in conversations about drinking.
“We’re all hurt, you know, and when we drink, we talk our feelings out,” Sophie Thrasher-Bernhardt had told me that morning in the post office.
Shirley echoes this. “When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s hard to get over that. I was 11 when that happened. Then I was sent to Grollier Hall,” a notorious residential school in Inuvik, where the nuns tormented her mercilessly. “Even though you want to go to the washroom, you pee yourself, they won’t let you go to the washroom.”
“It’s water under the bridge now, so I don’t want to talk about it. I talk to my counselor whenever I need to talk.”
“You’re doing good,” says John, patting her on the shoulder. “Still alive.”
Later, after the day shelter has closed at 5 p.m., I meet up with John. The Salvation Army kitchen doesn’t open until 7 p.m., so in the two-hour interim people hang out in the mall or cluster in bank lobbies. We head to KFC, where John often finds empty cups that are good for refills. Inside we meet one of his friends, who shows us a large steak tucked inside his jacket.
“I borrowed it from the Co-Op,” he tells us with a wink.
“We’re not stealing, we’re borrowing,” he says.
The street community shoplifts a lot, John tells me. Sometimes 15 or so people gather for big cookouts at one of the tent camps in the bushes around town. Each person is responsible for “borrowing” an ingredient.
It’s not so much about hunger, John says. Between the day shelter and the Salvation Army he’s reasonably well-fed, and he’s made up to $120 in a day panhandling and returning empties. He also makes a buck or two here and there shoveling snow and doing odd jobs in the summer.
We part ways around 6 p.m. John says he’s planning to spend the night in a new stairwell he’s found, though he can’t find the nail he uses to break into buildings. But he’ll figure something out. He hasn’t survived this long on Yellowknife’s frozen streets without being resourceful.