Angel, 18, volunteered to be interviewed at a Toronto street youth agency when the person I expected to interview didn’t show up. She is part of a large, complex family and was raised by paternal grandparents on a farm until adolescence, when they all went to live with her father in the GTA. She had difficulty with the transition and returned to her home town to live with her mother, came into child welfare care briefly and was released to her father’s care at 16. She quickly spiraled into a street life of drug dealing and prostitution. Her life style changed – although she still uses pot for medicinal purposes – when she learned she was pregnant. She also has cancer. She describes that she is not a planful person, and is worried about having a girl child, but is working with the agency and is optimistic. She has an interesting perspective on the lack of resources for youth in rural communities and the connection with negative behaviour.
FM: So, to begin, will you tell me something about your family – where you were raised, who was in the family, what they did for a living, etc. etc.
I grew up in a small town. I was raised by my grandparents until I was 12 on a farm. They’re both retired. Horses, cows, logs, clean air.
FM: So where were your birth parents – like, how come your grandparents were raising you, and did you have siblings?
My dad lived out in Toronto. He worked out there for a living. He renovates houses. My mom lived in [the same town] but I never grew up to know her. My parents fought for me three years in court. My dad was granted full custody and placed me with his parents. I didn’t grow up with my siblings, but I grew up around my siblings. I have 15 brothers and one sister, and I’m the youngest.
FM: So are these sibs full sibs or a combo of half-sibs, step-sibs, etc?
All of us have the same mom, different dads except for my two brothers and my one sister, they’re my step-siblings but I grew up with them my whole life because my mom and step-dad lived together for 18 years, and I’m 18.
FM: Okay. Just a bit more about grandparents, you said retired; retired from what? What did they do when they worked?
My grandfather also did housing construction for a living, his last job was renovating houses. He worked for my dad. My grandmother worked for [a bank] for like 10 years before she retired.
FM: Okay. So start maybe with whatever happened when you turned 12 and left the farm or grandparents or whatever.
Basically, when I graduated from grade 6, my grandparents were getting too old to take care of the farm and take care of me, so we moved to the city, out in [the GTA] with my dad. So I was a small country girl and I’d only seen white or native people my whole life, moving to the city.
FM: So how’d that work for you?
At first, when I first went to school in grade 7, it was really hard. I hated the city at first, everything about it. People – there were different cultures that I had to get used to, different life styles. [My home town] is a place where you can be really friendly; you can say hi to anybody. But in Toronto, you even look at somebody wrong and they want to fight you.
FM: Do you consider [the GTA] the same as Toronto?
Pretty much, yeah.
FM: Okay, so grade 7 was rough. And then?
Grade 8 came, things started to get a little bit easier. I had learned how to, I guess, change. I started fitting in in about grade 8 but I still got into fights almost every day at school. Started getting suspended a lot, not wanting to go to school.
FM: So fitting in, but not doing too well?
Yeah. I started to fit in with the wrong group of people is what happened.
FM: And why was that? What made that happen?
A lot of problems at home. I hated living with my dad. All I wanted was to go back to my farm and be there with my grandparents and it wasn’t possible.
FM: Were there sibs moving with you?
No, just me.
FM: And did you leave them behind in [your home town], or – what I’m asking is if they lived with your grandparents as well.
No, none of them lived with my grandparents, just me.
FM: And why was that?
None of them were my grandparents’ actual grandkids.
FM: Right, they were your mom’s kids. Okay. So grade 8, getting in trouble at school. Hated living at home...
I started running away a lot. I disappeared for months at a time on my dad. The police always found me and brought me home, willingly or unwillingly.
FM: And what age did that start?
14. Yeah, that was bad. Grade 9 I got the opportunity to go back home. I thought life would be so much better to live with my mom, but my dad was giving me the biggest reality check of my life. I lived with my mom for two months and I was put in CAS.
FM: And where did she live?
Back in [my home town].
FM: Okay, so a foster home or group home, what?
I spent my whole grade 9 year in CAS.
FM: In [your home town]?
Yeah. That’s when my life really went downhill. I started being like everybody else in [my home town]. I missed a total of 168 classes in grade 9, was lucky to even get the three credits that I did. The drugs all came into play then too. And then just when I was about to leave CAS, I got another biggest reality check of my life.
FM: Which was?
My best friend that I grew up with my whole entire life died of a drug overdose at age 16. And that’s very common for my town. [Shows me a tattoo with her friend’s name on it.]
FM: What kind of drugs were you guys doing?
Ecstasy. That’s one thing you need to understand about small towns. People think that drugs are bad in the city. In [my home town] we don’t have entertainment, I guess you could say. We don’t have movie theatres and malls to keep ourselves busy. All we know is drinking, partying, sex drugs and rock ‘n roll. Most girls in my town lose their virginity at 10, are pregnant at 16, have three kids by the age of 20, and if you don’t go that route, you’re dead because of drugs or suicide.
FM: Are you saying that there’s no ‘nice kids’ at all ?
I’m not saying there’s not, but for you to grow up [in my home town], you have to move to the city, you have to go the city, you don’t have much choice. You’re going to be working a minimum job the rest of your life or be a welfare bum. The education system down there sucks. There are so many kids that are in IE classes. I don’t even think they have normal classes in my high school. And that’s pretty sad because there’s only one high school in the whole town.
FM: What’s IE?
It’s like special learning classes, kids that have trouble reading and writing and stuff. I’ve taught all my nieces and nephews to read and write, and three of my older brothers, since I moved to the city. Read, write and spell.
FM: So did you go to IE classes?
No, I was fortunate enough that when I got to the city, I struggled a lot with the classes at first because the system was so different. But I was always a very smart kid, especially when it comes to English. So I just, basically, taught myself. It was cope or fail.
FM: Okay, so good basics but then you blew it with partying by grade 9. Hold on, you moved back to [your home town] in grade 9.
And then after my best friend died, I moved back to Toronto.
FM: With your dad?
Nope. On my own.
FM: Okay, what happened to CAS?
I got out of CAS when I was 16. They placed me with my dad, I was home for about four months and I left home at 16 and have been on my own since.
FM: So where’d you go?
Everywhere. That’s a long one.
FM: So maybe focus on what the factors are that influence when and how and where you make those moves.
Could you specify what that means, basically?
FM: What I mean is… sounds like you’ve been a bit of a tumbleweed, so I’m wondering what are the forces that move you from one place to another.
Money. That is one thing I always taught myself. No matter what, know how to make your money, no matter how you do it. I will never ever judge anyone for how they make their money. I know what it’s like to sleep on park benches and to go for days without eating.
FM: So did you work?
Not a real job. For the first, between 16 and 17 I started selling a lot of drugs. When I was about half-way through 17, started prostituting. Up until March of this year, when I found out I was pregnant. That’s when I came here to [this agency] and they helped me get my housing, because I was in a very abusive relationship so I got my housing in two months. I now live in the east end of Toronto, almost 8 months pregnant, having a little baby girl and I’m scared. The day I found out I was going to have a girl, I was scared. I don’t want her to go through half the stuff I did.
FM: So is it that you’re scared to have a girl, or a baby?
A girl. I’m scared to have a girl.
FM: What, boys have it better?
Not saying boys have it better, but boys are tougher. You expect certain things out of them, not like girls, know what I’m saying? Men are supposed to be men, work for a living, hard labour, whatever it is, right? Women that don’t have the best things in life resort to things like prostitution and pole dancing, strippers, whatever you call them. I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to grow up, go to school. Do the total opposite of everything that I did.
FM: So what needs to happen for that to be the way this story turns out? Like drug dealing and prostitution was good enough for you, why not for her?
Because she’ll have a mom. She’ll have a mom and a dad to grow up with. And grandparents. And a great-grandmother who was my gift in life, because if it weren’t for that woman, I’d be dead right now or in jail.
FM: So let’s go back a bit here: when you were selling drugs, what kind of drugs, what level of the drug delivery operation were you playing?
Anything and everything. And high volumes of it too. If I would ever have got caught, I’m looking at at least five years.
FM: So where’s your turf and who was your customer base?
Yonge St, anybody and everybody. This street right here, this is money central right here.
FM: And were you ‘free-lancing’ or working for an organization?
FM: So boodles of money?
Oh yeah. Money is not always there, some days are harsh but even on harsh days, it was still a good day. As long as you could make $20 to eat, it was never a harsh day.
FM: So if it was so good, why’d you go into prostitution?
Because money is 10 times more. And who doesn’t always want to make more money?
FM: So it’s all about the money?
Yeah, basically. That’s what life is about, money.
FM: How’s that gonna wash with a baby?
It will be hard because I got a kid now, can’t make money now the way I used to. Have to think about my daughter. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t miss it. But my daughter growing up properly is more important. I don’t mind struggling.
FM: So what’s the plan, specifically?
Honestly, because I’m not that person – I didn’t grow up planning my life, I take my life one day at a time. So I don’t have no specific plan for my future.
FM: You referenced in your app that you had substance abuse issues. Was that during high school or later?
Yeah, during high school. Biggest rule being a drug dealer is never do the drugs you sell. It never works out for you. Never ever.
FM: Is this the voice of experience?
This is the voice of seeing it first hand experience, by other people. I know some guys that used to make $20,000 a week selling crack and now they’re fiends on Sherbourne smoking crack, lost everything. Some of them are even dead now, actually.
FM: So did you quit using drugs when you were selling, or just used drugs other than those you were selling?
For me, I quit using when my friend died.
FM: Just cold turkey?
FM: Anybody helpful with that?
No. You have to be big enough to do it on your own. I notice that, a drug addiction no body can help you with. You have to be strong enough yourself.
FM: Is that the same as doing it alone, though?
No. Obviously you always do drugs with people.
FM: But do you stop doing drugs with people?
Sometimes yes, but in my case, the only way I was going to stop was if I was strong enough to stop myself, because I don’t listen to nobody.
FM: Okay, so you’ve been drug free since 16, do I read?
Three years, going on four.
I don’t qualify it as a drug but I still do smoke weed. Weed is a plant that grows out of the ground; drugs you have to chemically do something to it. And that’s why I don’t qualify weed a drug. Because if they’re going to call weed a drug, they should call tobacco a drug, because it’s a plant grows out of the ground.
FM: Actually, tobacco is a drug, it’s just that it’s a legal drug. And marijuana is not. But acknowledged that tobacco – nicotine – is highly addictive. But, that’s neither here nor there. Wondering if when you were prostituting, weed was enough to make that life manageable.
No. Nothing really makes that life manageable. You just deal with it.
FM: How did you get into prostituting? We know why – money – but what was the route into that life style?
I met a friend of a friend who taught me a one-two, and that’s all I’m going to say on that.
FM: Okay, and getting pregnant; was that a surprise?
Yeah. It really was. I wasn’t supposed to be able to have children.
FM: Says who?
Says cervical cancer.
FM: Talk a bit more about that.
Cancer runs in my family really bad so I got diagnosed this year. My mom died in March of this year. I found out about two weeks after she died I had cervical cancer. And then after that, two weeks later, I found out I was pregnant. I’m having a little girl and it’s due on my mom’s birthday.
FM: And what are they doing about treating the cancer?
They can’t do anything for me until after the baby’s born. I have gotten two needles in my spine, now, because the baby has gotten sick.
FM: So needles for you or for the baby?
FM: What kind of sick? What do they name it?
There is no really specific name. It’s just for the cancer.
FM: And what do they tell you the treatment will be after the baby is born?
There’s no specific plans right now, but it looks like I’ll be getting a hysterectomy, so this really is my miracle child.
FM: That is a tough situation.
Sometimes it keeps me up at night.
FM: I was just reviewing in my mind the various sectors that I talked about, and we’ve covered education – dropped out at grade 9, no plans to return?
Yeah, one day. Still got my whole life ahead of me.
FML What would you want to get education for? What would it allow you to do?
My dream is to become a music producer.
FM: Okay. So high school and at least a college degree?
FM: Alright. Employment – mostly worked in illicit field, selling drugs and sex. Health – substance abuse, licked it at 16, still smoke pot – even while you’re pregnant?
Yes, my doctor says it’s really good for the cancer. It’s probably why I’m not as sick as I should be.
FM: Okay. Involvement with the legal system?
Like CAS you mean?
FM: No, I mean like the police.
I have been very fortunate. I do not have a criminal record at all. I’ve never been charged. How many times have I been arrested and slept overnight in a jail, though? I could not tell you. I could not tell you.
FM: Why is that—you get picked up but nothing sticks.
Yeah basically. There’s a little thing in Canada called evidence and if you do not have evidence, you are considered a free person.
FM: So you’re smart.
Very smart. Very very smart. Lucky, more – excuse me for saying this, you can only have a horseshoe up your ass for so long.
FM: By which you mean that you can’t count on luck, you have to get smart?
Exactly! And your luck can always run out.
FM: Okay, mental health issues?
Everybody in my family is bi-polar. Every last person.
FM: It seems to me that bi-polar is more pervasive than the flu.
Sometimes it really is.
FM: But have ever been diagnosed? I don’t hear you describing symptoms.
Oh yeah. I’m more of a passive bi-polar. I either get really really angry or really really depressed.
FM: And the really really angry hasn’t added up to assault charges or anything of that sort?
Not yet, nope.
FM: How are you supporting yourself now?
I’m on welfare right now.
FM: And are you able to live on that?
Yes and no. I’m not going to say I’m perfect, sometimes it’s really hard to cope on so little. More or less when you’re used to having certain things and you don’t have that any more, it sucks. You either complain about it or you learn to cope. Life is full of headaches; it how you deal with those headaches that makes you a strong person or a weak person.
FM: Okay, are we ready for my finish-up questions?
FM: Alright: In order for the people who will read this narrative to understand it the way you mean it to be understood, can you say what you think the Most Important Event is, the thing that most influenced how this story is unfolding. It could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, an absence or a hole. What would you say?
All I can really say to that – I wasn’t dealt that nice family over the railroad with the white picket fence house, the little one boy one girl perfect family type deal, you know what I mean? Sometimes you’re dealt a really shitty hand in life. All I taught myself to do was make my hand into a full house and win.
FM: Okay. The judgment question: People who read this story will be forming an opinion about how it turns out. How do you think it will turn out: good? Not so good? Whaddya say?
Nobody can predict the future, that’s all you really can say to that. Everybody is going to have their opinion.
FM: Quite right. But this is really a chance for you to influence that opinion by saying what your belief is.
How I’m going to turn out? I know for a proven fact I’ll be just fine. I may struggle in life but I know at the end of the day I’ll do just fine because I know how to fight and I’m a big survivor.
FM: Do you think being raised for 12 years in what I think you implied was a loving and adequate home with your grandparents, do you think that made any difference?
That’s the only reason why I turned out half decent. That’s the only reason why I’m not dead or in jail, is because of my grandparents.
FM: Do you think being raised in the country was overall a good thing or a bad thing, for the eventual outcome?
Honestly, I think if possible everybody should have the opportunity to live both lives. To grow up in the city and know country life or to grow up in the country and know city life.
FM: How could that be accomplished, d’ya think?
Well, if you live in the city, take trips down to the country. We got cottages.
FM: Well, as someone who lives full-time in cottage country, I believe that most people who visit get a quite slanted and basically incorrect impression of what living in the country is really like.
That is so true. My city friends make fun of me all the time about being a country girl.
FM: What do they identify as being ‘country’?
My accent, for one. I know how to rope a pig, for two.
FM: How would they know about roping pigs, let alone that you can do it?
Because I’ve showed them a one-two on it.
FM: I don’t know what this one-two means?
It means when you show people more of one thing. Like – yeah, it basically means showing someone more than one thing.
FM: Like showing something in detail?
FM: Like more than is evident with a casual acquaintanceship? Like the underneath story?
FM: Okay. Now two more questions, the advice questions. What advice would you give your younger self, whether or not your younger self would take that advice, that you think would make the way this story unfolds either better or easier or smoother or whatever. What advice?
Like I said before, life is full of headaches. It’s how you deal with those headaches that makes you the person you are. That’s the best piece of advice anybody could ever make. Because life is totally unpredictable.
FM: Yeah, although you said you’re where you are because of the start you got, which suggests a kind of predictability.
And choices I’ve made.
FM: Yeah, so is that a kind of predictability? That actions have consequences?
All actions have consequences, good or bad.
FM: So that’s what a plan is, choosing an action that has a probability of delivering the consequence you want. Yeah?
FM: Okay. So last question. What advice would you give those of us who would wish to be helpful to young people like yourself, that would allow us to be more effective, more helpful, more efficient?
That’s a tough question. Honesty is the one thing you can really give somebody. Helpful? You can’t really help somebody unless they want to be helped. So if they’re willing like to have the help, programs. I’m a big believer in programs like [this agency]. If it weren’t for this place, these people have helped me out so much.
FM: In what way?
They helped me see like I can live a normal life. That I can get things if I really want them.
FM: Such as ?
Housing. Education. Health care. Money. Jobs. Anything and everything you need you can get at this place. And the people that work here don’t do it for a cheque, get what I mean? They do it because they genuinely genuinely care.
FM: How do you know? How can you tell?
Because they treat us with respect. They don’t treat us like some dumb street kids that don’t know anything or aren’t going anywhere in life. They treat us like the young adults that we could be.
FM: Do you think there’s anything people can do to help young people who are still pretty convinced that they can do what is needed, when they decide to, to help them use help earlier rather than later? Anything that people can do to create the circumstances under which young people will accept help earlier in the process?
No I don’t.
FM: I used to bug a young woman I worked with with this question and she called me up all excited because she finally knew the answer to the question, many years later. You know what she said?
What did she say?
FM: She said Fay, here’s the secret. Turn 30.
FM: I didn’t think so. But at least it let me off the hook, wasn’t anything I was or wasn’t doing, that was her message to me. Okay, that’s me done. Anything else from you?
No, I’m good.