By Charles Hamilton, The Starphoenix
It was the first time in his life Brad Christianson truly feared going to jail.
He was 23 years old on the cold January morning when he walked into court, knowing his fate was sealed.
By that time in his young life, Christianson was no stranger to incarceration.
He was first locked up when he was 12, after pulling a pocket knife on an older kid.
This time around, he was truly frightened. This time, he wouldn’t have the protection of his gang to see him through the hard days ahead.
“This time I was actually scared. I didn’t know how it was going to be. Every other time, I had my buddies, I knew where I sat. I had my homies I could go lean on, and I had drugs I could sell for my money,” he says.
For a gang member, he says, prison is not a scary place. If you wear the right colours and are “cliqued up” with the right gang, a five-year stint is nothing. Jail was a given – another part of the street life, where laws are flouted daily. Higher-ups in the gang exert their control behind bars, as well as on the outside.
“When you are in the federal penitentiary, gangs are dominant. It’s open population. You see when you go eat, when you go to the weight pit and the gym,” he says.
When Christianson was sentenced to five years for his role in a violent home invasion in 2010, he no longer had the backing of his gang. He had dropped his colours.
For the first time in his life, he was clean and sober when he walked into that courtroom. He was headed to prison knowing he was on his own without the drugs, and without the protection of fellow gang members.
Christianson grew up in a middle-class household on Saskatoon’s east side – far away from what most people typically think of as the street life. His mother was not a drug addict or an alcoholic, and by all appearances he was on the road to a normal adulthood. Underneath the veneer, however, a lot of pain was lurking.
“My dad used to beat the f—–g s—right out of me,” Christianson says, this time telling his story to a group gathered at the Metis Friendship Centre in Riversdale. “Then he ditched when I was 13 years old. That messed me up.”
Although he doesn’t go into any detail, Christianson also admits he was sexually abused as a kid. He does not say who did it.
“I soaked everything in, and when I was 13 years old I started dishing it out – running around this city, selling dope, using drugs, pushing drugs on other people,” he told the crowd.
Andre Poilievre, the Catholic priest who founded the Str8-Up program to help people get out of gangs, has worked closely with Christianson for years.
He says even though Christianson doesn’t carry the inter-generational pain from historic traumas like residential school abuse and colonialism like many of his fellow gang members, the crimes committed against him as a child were part of what led him to gang life.
“I think that was a factor,” Poilievre says.
By the age of 13, Christianson was selling his Ritalin prescriptions to fellow classmates. He soon moved on to selling marijuana and eventually ecstasy and cocaine to high school students all over the city.
At first, the idea was to create his own gang so that the older, tougher kids wouldn’t rip him off for his drugs, he says. Soon he decided he could make more money and have access to more drugs if he joined the tough kids and their gang. In the years that followed, his addictions took control of his life.
“That’s when it all got a little bit too heavy. I was so messed up on drugs the whole time. Drinking every day. It’s very easy to fall into it,” he says.
After his first stint in Saskatoon’s Kilburn Hall youth correctional centre, jail became a familiar place. Christianson is now 27 years old, and has spent 13 and a half years – exactly half of his life – in custody. Gang membership and the fact he was a proficient drug dealer made transitioning back and forth between prison and the streets easy. He would get out and be met with open arms, a place to stay and money to buy what he needed, he says.
Nevertheless, the life wore on him. The first time he met his son, who is now six years old, Christianson was in handcuffs.
“It’s a violent life. It’s sad. It doesn’t matter how good you are at gang banging, at selling drugs, you are going to end up in prison,” he says.
He met Poilievre while behind bars, and he says that’s when he started to change. It would take him four years to fully leave the gang life behind. He says he couldn’t have done it without Poilievre and the support from other former gang members involved in Str8-Up.
He has lost a lot of friends on his journey out of the life, but he has made others, including Poilievre.
“Five years from now?
He’ll be working, he’ll be employed, he’ll be sober. He’ll be raising his kid,” Poilievre predicts.
“I see him as a family man, as a good citizen.”
Now going on five years sober, Christianson is making changes for his son, hoping to leave him a legacy he can be proud of. He did his entire five-year stint in the federal penitentiary without rejoining the gang. It was tough at first, he says, but thoughts of his son and his new life on the outside got him through.
“When I die, do I want to leave my son a bandana, a handgun and a bag of dope? Or do I want to leave him a business, and show him what a loving partner can be like, what a respectful man can be like?”
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