As It Happens

How Oshawa's new mayor recovered from addiction and got off the streets

Three decades before winning the mayoral election in Oshawa, Ont., Dan Carter he was homeless, illiterate and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

Dan Carter discusses his decades-long struggles with grief, drugs, alcoholism and sexual abuse

Dan Carter, the newly elected mayor of Oshawa, Ont., reads to his granddaughter Carolina-Mae. (Submitted by Paula Carter)

Dan Carter says he wouldn't be where he is today if it weren't for his sister Maureen.

"She saved my life. She absolutely saved my life," Carter told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams. 

Carter was elected mayor of Oshawa, Ont., Monday night, winning in a landslide with 69 per cent of the votes.

But 28 years ago, he was homeless, illiterate and struggling with a drug and alcohol addiction that left him isolated from most of his friends and family. 

'Ether die or sober up'

He was at rock bottom when he reached out to Maureen for help. 

"My sister Maureen, she always believed in me. She always believed that there was more to me than what appeared on the surface," Carter said.

"I finally got so sick that I phoned her one day and said, 'You know, Maureen, I think I'm going to die.' And she said, 'Why don't you come over to the house?'

"When I went over to see her, she just whacked me in the side of the head and she said, 'You've got two choices today — either die or sober up.'"

Dan Carter is pictured here with his wife Paula on election night in Oshawa, Ont. (Submitted by Paula Carter)

Carter chose the latter, and Maureen got him into a rehab clinic where he would begin the arduous process of turning his life around.

Confronting old demons 

Carter said he started drinking when he was just 13 years old after his brother Michael died in a motorcycle crash.

"It just absolutely devastated me for the next 17 or 18 years. I tried to escape reality through drugs and alcohol to the extent that it found me mentally, emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually broken in every aspect by the time I was 31 years old," he said.

It was in rehab that he began to confront some of the demons that had been haunting him for years, he said.

Carter and his wife Paula. (Submitted by Paula Carter)

He finally admitted out loud that he'd been sexually abused by a stranger when he was eight years old.

He spoke for the first time about how living with undiagnosed dyslexia for decades left him barely able to read and write simple sentences. 

"I had to stand up and say I couldn't read at 31, which is really embarrassing," Carter said. "But it helped me kind of break down the bridge, that I didn't have to hide behind it anymore."

Eventually, Carter was able to start building a career for himself as a local broadcaster, a business owner and motivational speaker.

In 2014, he was elected as a regional councillor. 

Giving back 

Now he finds himself in charge of a city that's facing its own addiction problem.

Between 2003 and 2016, emergency visits in the Durham Region due to an opioid overdose doubled from 138 to 274, according to the regional health department. The number of deaths increased from 17 in 2005 to 41 in 2016.

Carter said improving "unconditional" access to health care and social services for the the city's most vulnerable is a priority for him.

"I have been given these unfortunate gifts, but out of those gifts I am able to be able to help many others and I remind myself of that on a regular basis," Carter said.

"Then it's a natural call to be able to not only share that experience, but to be able to say: How can I serve my community? How can I serve the public at the every highest level?"

Now that's he been elected mayor, Carter said he feels blessed to see how much his life has changed over the last three decades. 

But there are many people who aren't around to share in the celebrations. Michael has gone. His parents have died. And his sister Maureen took her own life nine year after he got sober. 

"She always believed that the real Danny was there somewhere," he said. "It was just lost in addiction for a long period of time."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention


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