Like Bruce Oake, Johnathan Parker needed help for his drug addiction.
But Parker, who is 39 and has been sober for a decade, had to go out of province for long-term residential treatment. It helped him break out of the cycle that began when he started abusing alcohol at age 13. By 18, he was using cocaine and other drugs.
Parker, who sits on the board of the soon-to-open Bruce Oake Treatment Centre in the former Vimy arena, said he wishes the facility had been around when he needed it.
"When someone is ready to make the choice to get sober, that’s when they have the biggest hope," he said.
"I grew up in St. James and if it had been in my community then, I would have got thinking about treatment. I had friends in Crestview and I played hockey in that rink.
"The fact that I’m still here and didn’t die is a miracle."
"When someone is ready to make the choice to get sober, that’s when they have the biggest hope." – Johnathan Parker
He got sober the same year that Oake’s addictions ended his life. He died of a heroin overdose when he was 25.
In less than three weeks, but after years of persuasion, sweat, fundraising and educating upset neighbours, the treatment centre will welcome its first residents.
As many as 50 residents at a time will be able to get the long-term treatment they need to survive.
Oake was the eldest son of Scott, a CBC sportscaster and Hockey Night in Canada host, and his wife, Anne. He started taking drugs in high school and, by his early 20s, his parents had to get him in a long-term treatment program.
Oake stayed in the program for a year, but relapsed. He got back in, but a few months later he failed a drug test and had to leave the program.
He died a week later.
To honour his memory, the Oakes began working on a plan to create a treatment centre in Winnipeg, modelled after the program used at the Fresh Start Recovery Centre in Calgary.
"We know treatment is not just about using substances and alcohol and other drugs, it is building a foundation for life." – Greg Kyllo, the centre’s executive director
The city had decommissioned the arena on Hamilton Avenue in Crestview, and was willing to sell it for $1. City council later approved the sale and the necessary zoning change against the wishes of some residents of the neighbourhood, who said they wanted to preserve recreation space in the area.
Some admitted they had fears the centre would attract crime and reduce property values.
During the $16-million fundraising campaign in 2019, construction crews moved in to begin transforming the building.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been responsible for postponing or cancelling all kinds of projects, but it didn’t affect construction of the treatment centre, which will be finished months before the planned fall opening.
Scott Oake said opening the doors is only the beginning.
"It’s what I always say — it’s not the finish line, it is the start line," said Scott. "This is the point where we start saving lives."
He said he wishes it could have opened a year ago.
"This is the point where we start saving lives." – Scott Oake
"This pandemic shows how much it is needed," he said. "We had 377 overdose deaths in 2020. That’s an average increase of 85 per cent from 2019, and much of it was due to the pandemic and the isolation that has come with it."
He said there will be high demand to get into the 16-week program for men.
"We don’t need one centre, we need two or three," he said, adding women will be offered treatment on an outpatient basis, but he’s already thinking about a second facility.
"A lot of women are reluctant to go to recovery because they are worried they’ll lose their kids," he said. "Our centre would have a daycare with it.
"We’re fully prepared to stay at this."
The 32,000-square-foot Bruce Oake Treatment Centre features 25 bedrooms, a gym and smudging room, a kitchen and a dining room.
Greg Kyllo, the centre’s executive director, says the plan is to admit people gradually.
"We will be bringing them in in groups," said Kyllo, adding the first residents will have rooms to themselves, but later, when the centre is at capacity, new arrivals will room with someone who has been there for a while, who’ll serve as a mentor.
Kyllo said residents will get help finding employment and affordable housing before they finish the program.
"We know employment is key to long-term success," he said. "We’ll help people who want to work. We know treatment is not just about using substances and alcohol and other drugs, it is building a foundation for life."
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And treatment will continue after residents move out to help with the transition back into the community, he said.
As for Parker, now a top executive with a national auto sales company, he is glad to be able to give back to the people who are following in his footsteps to recovery.
"Words can’t describe what this will do for people in the community," he said. "Our province just got healthier. I grew up in St. James in a middle-class family and had a great upbringing and I ended up a drug addict and an alcoholic.
"It can happen to anyone."
Kevin Rollason Reporter
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.