I quit school to join the workforce when I was 16 years old, but always knew I would return to complete my education someway, somehow. I was always working; in fact being tired all the time may have resulted in my not finishing high school. At 16, I was delivering pizza every night for Gondola, slopping horses at the race track at six each morning, and doing odd construction jobs on weekends, so I was pretty much independent from a young age.
As a child, I thought of myself as a philsophical person, somewhat of a poet, but I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in high school. One teacher, who I liked and respected, took me aside one day and even encouraged me to leave school; I’ve always felt he let me down at that time. When my buddy Duane suggested we quit and go down West, I said OK. I finally found some work as a logger in BC, but got laid off within a few months before I came back to Winnipeg to do a variety of construction and factory jobs. Concrete work was hard. I still thank my lucky stars that I don’t do that for a living, every time I drive by a construction crew. Landscaping was OK, it is outdoors and not too dangerous, but I still recall the time my workmate got taken away by ambulance because he inhaled too much dry dirt.
One moment of truth came when I was 19 years old, working at the old Five Roses Flour Mill in Winnipeg. It was a dirty, tough job and I saw something that made me think. I saw a man, a machine tender talking to the shop stuart, it was a union shop, and he was upset. He said a young manager told him to dump a 100-pound bag of flour down a chute. I’m a machine tender, its not my job, and I have a bad back- he said. The manager said do it or go home. This man had worked there for maybe 20 years, and would have a hard time finding other work. I said to myself right then and there, I better get back to school, otherwise I’ll still be doing this dirty job when I am 50.
Looking for options, I started checking adult education and high schools for ways for me to go back. One day, I stopped in at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate. It was a different kind of place, as it was part of the University. I met a kind principal named Vanderstoel. I had a poor school record, but I felt I could possibly finish high school and who knows where that might lead. In about five minutes, Mr. Vanderstoel set me up to do my high school courses and a course in first year university as well. This sent my life on a whole new trajectory for the next seven years, finishing high school and then my bachelor’s degree. I told the management at Five Roses Flour I was quitting to go back to school and an interesting thing happened. By the end of that day they came to me and said they had talked it over and they’d created a job for me; I was to watch for fires. So, for the next year I worked two 16 hour shifts at the flour mill each weekend, studying for high school, and walking through the mill once per hour to watch for fires. In hindsight, I realized later how nice that was of them; but, they needed that fire watch as the place eventually burnt down, not on my watch, but long after I had moved on.
I took courses at the University of Winnipeg, year around while working four jobs, finishing high school. For many years I worked out at the YMCA, bodybuilding and strength training, when I wasn’t training in the martial arts. The YMCA was the only weight room in the City. From the age of 13 I used to meet my Dad there; he would go after work and I would bus down there after school and then catch a ride home. I still went there when I was 19, and one guy at the gym was a senior supervisor in the Sheriff’s Office; he hired me as a Sheriff. It was a good job for studying and great experience in the courts and prisons. I also worked other jobs, supervising federal prison inmates in a halfway house owned by the Native Clan Organization. For about a year, at one time, I was working fulltime as a Sheriff during the week, then I would report to Regina house and work from Friday evening, around the clock, to Sunday night, 40 hours, every weekend. Then in the evenings during the week I was the night manager of the Holiday Inn downtown; that was a job that evolved from when I was the bouncer in the nightclub and an opening came up to take over the security department. My wife Barb and I both worked there, and that is where we met. I was always taking courses and always studying ever chance I got.
I was a Sheriff’s Officer for five years and achieved the coveted permanent provincial appointment, which means you have benefits and cannot be laid off. However, I reached a point in 1987 where I could complete my BA if I went fulltime to school, so I made a leap and did it, giving up my provincial job; another crossroad. I was also a part-time soldier for years, with the Fort Gary Horse, and I eventually gave that up when I went into policing. I started in 1989 with the Winnipeg Police Service, after graduating with my BA. I moved up the ranks to my current position of Staff Sergeant, 29 years later. On the job training is a whole other story, after all the specializations I pursued, I had a resume 20 pages long.
Eighteen years into my policing career I started looking to further my university education. Looking at law school and various graduate programs, on the advice of one of our deputy police chiefs, I ended up in the Politics Department, at the University of Winnipeg. The chair of the Masters program (joint between the U. of Manitoba and U. of Winnipeg) in Public Administration said I might be a candidate, but why not try one course and see how it goes? She said the core theory course starts next week. I was nervous and unsure, but I made a snap decision and got re-admitted to the University of Winnipeg, and got permission to take the one course. Making that decision sent my life in an entirely different direction. I was unsure if I belonged, or if I could do it, but in the end, I loved it and did well. I took course after course and eventually was admitted to the program, finally completing it, with distinction, in 2009. Throughout my grad studies I always chose paper topics that I might apply in my policing career. They became the core of the first book I published, Canadian Policing in the 21stCentury: A frontline officer on challenges and changes (McGill-Queens University Press, 2013).
Grad studies in addition to my public service career was so rewarding and enriching that I wanted to continue it. Dr. Byrne, chair of the Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) Program, in the Arthur V. Mauro Center for Peace and justice, was kind and advised that I may be a candidate, so why not put in an application. The PACS program is one of the few PhD programs of its kind, and is unique in Canada. After I applied, they advised that I had no background in Peace Studies, but why not join the new PACS Masters degree that was started in 2010. I already had a master’s degree, but I just wanted my learning to continue, so I jumped into it.
One of the highlights of that program was travelling across South Africa, studying truth and reconciliation. Another highlight was rolling out my book on policing, presenting on it as far away as Hong Kong. Barb and I loved doing book signings for years; and I was always taking courses. At one point, in 2012, I suggested to the University of Manitoba that I have almost completed a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies, and therefore now have a pretty good grounding in the field, maybe my studies should be applied towards a PhD? They agreed, and I embarked on completing my PhD. My dissertation, titled Modern Day Slavery and the Sex Industry, was on a topic that I became passionate about through my police work. It was just awarded the distinguished dissertation award by the University of Manitoba. I was proud to achieve this, because even now, I often feel insecure, like I don’t belong in the University, like I tricked the system somehow and just have not been found out yet.
People often ask me how I found time to finish a PhD while working full time and being father to four children. I most often say, half-joking, but actually not joking at all, at three in the morning, in the off times, when the kids were sleeping and when I was not required to do anything else. I always had a brief case with my coursework with me, always grabbing a minute here and there- and it all adds up. I had a lawn chair in the trunk of the car and always volunteered to drive the kids to their soccer games, basketball games, karate, swimming; a soccer game is good for two hours of reading. Of course, it was also a sacrifice for Barb, and Crystal, Chelsea, Brandi and Bobby; but my hope is that the example I tried to set, as a life-long learner, has made an impression and rubbed off on them. I believe it has, and I am proud of them all.
University is a special place for me, it has been the institution that stood behind a young man with hopes and dreams of a higher education, and all the doors it has opened for me. It changed the trajectory for a kid who quit school to work as a laborer. As a life-long learner I have always, throughout my whole adult life, felt proud and thankful for the important role that education has played for me, and the role it plays for thousands of people each year in achieving a better more fulfilling life. Now, as I have 20 academic papers, books and book chapters in various stages of publication, I can’t help but think back to the crossroads that send people here rather than there in life.
My hope is to use my story to encourage and inspire others, not so much to seek formal education, but to remain curious about the world, and keep learning. “Lifelong Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it” (Physicist & Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein, 1879 – 1955). Of course, my life’s journey of learning and unexpected lessons was directed in part by the strange experiences that came with 40 years in peace keeping professions, and a life dedicated to my wife and four loving children who in turn inspired and supported my educational journey.
My Dad was an educated man, a tradesman who could build anything with his hands, but he had very little formal education. Mom dedicated herself to our family. Life and learning is not about formal education; it is about being curious about the world and always asking questions. Now in my 29thyear of policing I still literally wear a blue collar at work. I am proud of it, coming from a blue-collar background, and from a blue-collar family, and so proud of my Dad for always encouraging me to do what I feel passionate about in life. On his death bed, he said “life is short, don’t take things for granted and don’t take yourself too seriously.” Words that stuck with me. My message to you is to keep learning and engaging with life, it is the journey that is most meaningful, not the destination.