'You can't just throw them away': Chance for a job and a life beyond meth addiction
After going to prison for drug trafficking, Pamela Church is finding her place in society
Few can tackle addiction alone, but the combination of opportunity, support in society and rehabilitation can change the course of a life.
Three years ago, Pamela Church, a graphic designer in the North End, fell into a trap that's all too common in Winnipeg — methamphetamines.
"I was very miserable. There wasn't a day that went by where I was happy or felt good about myself," Church said. "Being around, you know, people that … don't have your best intentions at heart, they're just looking out for themselves."
Church's growing addiction led to her losing the only job she cared for and eventually ending up behind bars, but a chance to go to a healing lodge offered to only a few and a supportive boss helped her turn her life around and build a strong future.
To help curb her addiction, Church, who is from Skownan First Nation, Man., was moved to the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge on the Nekaneet First Nation near Maple Creek, Sask.
The lodge, which opened in 1995, was designed to help incarcerated Indigenous women reform and be empowered.
"Going to the healing lodge was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.… There's a lot of programming that we took to kind of change the way you think about different situations, and [it] kind of makes you think twice before you react or make the next bad decision," Church said.
"I'm 22 months sober and I plan on living the rest of my life that way."
It started with a bad mistake — just trying meth once, Church said. Friends told her she'd love it, but nobody understood how deep her meth addiction would become.
As addiction became a bigger problem, every other part of her life came crashing down.
"I've always struggled with addiction, so … that caused a lot of problems between me and my boss, being late, or not showing up or not performing as well as I could," Church said.
For seven years, Church's job as a graphic designer at Lloyd's Quick Printing was one of the best parts of her daily life. She had a boss who invested in her, cared for her and treated her like family.
That boss, Dalton Dennis, has long been a mainstay of the North End community.
He can often be found outside his business on a hot summer day, eating lunch on the street and exchanging pleasantries with everyone on his block.
"It wasn't until 2016, I was forced to step away from my job because I fell into my addiction heavily," Church said. "I fell even deeper into addiction and started doing criminal activity."
As Church's problems spiraled, she avoided going down Selkirk Avenue near McGregor Street out of fear of disappointing Dennis.
"When I was stuck in my problem, I avoided him at all costs. I wouldn't walk down this part of the street because I knew he would be here, and if I were to see him in the state that I was in, I would be devastated," Church said.
"I was embarrassed."
'To break that addiction on your own is near impossible'
In 2018, Church was sentenced to six years for trafficking cocaine and meth. She served her time in a minimum security federal penitentiary.
Church was one of hundreds of prisoners in the system, but only one of forty who was given a chance to seek rehab.
She understands the challenges that others in her situation have faced.
"They made a mistake, they get stuck in a cycle of addiction, and to break that addiction on your own is near impossible," Church said.
"They kind of, you know, go through the motions and then get out, and then they go back to the same cycle and they're stuck in it. I was lucky enough to go to this healing lodge and learn a lot of things there," she said.
When women who don't get a chance at rehab leave prison, there aren't enough back-to-work programs or addictions services to help them resume their lives and change habits, Church said.
"It's very hard to find a job when you have a criminal record, it's very hard to find a job when you're on parole, so a lot of people just slip back through the cracks and go back to their old ways," she said.
"If they could find meaningful employment, then that would help them stay away from that cycle."
The same boss she'd avoided when she was in the depths of addiction helped Church's chances of parole and brought her back to work.
Nobody knew her struggles better than Dennis, who wrote a letter in favour of Church's release on parole and took on the task of helping her to reintegrate into society.
Dennis decided to bring her back onto his staff when her a parole officer called him. After mulling it over, Dennis knew what his obligation to his community was.
"From my heart, I have to give people a second chance, because if not, then the whole system will fall apart," he said.
His effort is not lost on Church.
"Dalton does run a risk having me here. That's what society would think, that's what the police would think, that's what everybody would think," she said.
"I want to prove them all wrong."
In her years of being an addict, there was one line Church never crossed: betraying Dennis.
"I was always honest with him, I was always straight up with him, and I think that's something that he admired in me," she said.
If ever he fell into something similar, Dennis said, he would "want somebody to help."
"I truly believe that you have to turn the other cheek, but don't turn your eyes away from the problem that people have, and help those people to move forward," Dennis said.
The character Church showed in taking responsibility for her actions and wanting to lead a healthier life convinced Dennis to bring her back.
"It's not that I don't have doubts. I have faith … [She has] demonstrated to me that she is worthy. She's a human being [and] should get a chance," he said.
"You just have to realize that you've made a mistake, you pay your debt to society and you move ahead.
"She's the best graphic designer I've ever had, and I've had lots."
'The North End has been good to me'
Dennis has been operating Lloyd's Quick Printing in the North End for 20 years, and has been on the same block on Selkirk Avenue for the past 13 years.
Dennis spent his formative years on the area streets, where many of his friends lived and where he first received a chance to start his own business.
"The North End has been good to me. I do find that a lot of people in the North End are real, very honest, very straightforward," Dennis said. "If they don't like you, they'll tell you. If they like you, they'll tell you."
He came to Canada from Jamaica, where he said community was an important aspect of everyday life and integral to success and safety. That's also why he chose the North End.
"It's a community base, you know. You see all the different tragedy that's going on around and people come together," he said.
"If somebody falls in Canada or in the North End and they commit a crime, you can't just throw them away," Dennis said. "You have to give them a chance. Everybody deserves a chance."
Church is grateful she could go to the healing lodge. There are not enough resources available in Winnipeg for those who want another chance, she said.
"I think there will never be enough, there'll never be enough help and support for the number of growing addicts that there is in this city," she said.
Part of the onus does fall on addicts to want change, Church said.
"They have to try and work hard at it every single day. It's gonna be a constant struggle for the rest of your life. You never graduate from becoming an alcoholic or becoming an addict," she said. "You're stuck with that for the rest of your life."
The support from her family, the lessons from the healing lodge and the constant watchful eye of Dennis have helped Church stay on the straight and narrow.
"You definitely need the support, you definitely need somebody on your side to help you out if you really want to beat it," she said.
Church looks to Dennis as a role model, and said if there were more people like him, willing to give opportunities to people who would otherwise be stigmatized, there would be less recidivism.
"One person can only help so many people. If there was more of him, many more people would have that chance to rehabilitate and get back into society in a positive way," she said.
The lesson Dennis takes from working with Church — who is now flourishing — is that those in positions of privilege need to help those who are more vulnerable.
"You can't just take from the community. You have to give something back."