Some may call Andy Nieman’s first drink of alcohol his first communion. He drank looking for salvation.
It happened at Whitehorse United Church during the summer he was 12. In those days, the church’s doors were left unlocked. Nieman used to wander into the back and steal money. But one day he found wine instead of cash.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is the stuff that gets my mom all wild,’” Yukon’s child and youth advocate recalled in an interview this week.
Two glasses later and he was drunk out of his mind.
“My first experience of alcohol, and I was hooked,” he said. The wine gave him relief. “I felt dirty. I felt damaged,” he said. When he was drunk, he could forget about these feelings.
So began Nieman’s decades as a chronic alcoholic.
But the wine only watered seeds that were already present.
Nieman grew up in Whitehorse, in Sleepy Hollow, where Boston Pizza is now. The third youngest of nine children, he lived with his mother, who he describes as a “violent alcoholic.” His father travelled often, working as a camp cook, trapper and prospector. Although a member of the White River First Nation based in Beaver Creek, Nieman spent little time in the bush growing up.
Instead, he spent his time stealing and breaking and entering.
For these crimes, the court sent him away to school. He was 10 years old and nearly 500 kilometres from his family and friends. The school he was sent to was the infamous Lower Post Indian Residential School in Lower Post, B.C.
Few things stand out to Nieman about the three years he spent at the government-sponsored, church-run school designed to assimilate First Nations children: playing hockey with other students, and listening to the children laugh when he and friend Robert Niedley pretended to walk like chickens.
“Humour actually saved my sanity, I think,” he said.
He needed it. One other item completes his list of school memories: sexual abuse at the hands of his supervisor.
The abuse led to “toxic shame,” he said. That’s why he drank the wine he found at the church.
“At the residential school, I had always been told that I was never gonna be good for nothing, and that I was a dirty Indian,” said Nieman. The school was run by the Catholic Church, and Nieman was an altar boy, although he didn’t drink the wine there, he said.
The school staff said the students should be thankful for what they were doing, that they were trying to help them, said Nieman. But it didn’t work.
“The abuse is what made me feel dirty and damaged. Couldn’t look people in the eye for too long, because I always felt they would see, my eyes might give me away, they might see the shame or something.”
To forget about the shame, he used alcohol, heroin and cocaine. To get to the drugs, he used crime. His celebrated his 16th birthday in a police car, driving from Watson Lake to the jail in Whitehorse where he would spend four months. He’d been caught stealing a car in Lower Post.
He spent over 10 years in jails across the country, he said. When he was out, he was doing drugs, drinking alcohol and living on Skid Row in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
There, he was surrounded by “alcoholics like me,” he said. He could get lost in the crowd. He was panhandling and searching through garbage for food, but at least he felt like he belonged.
Drugs were readily available. For an addict, it was “like heaven,” he said.
But it didn’t last.
Eventually, Nieman got sober. He returned to Whitehorse in 1994 and later earned a degree in social work through the University of Regina. He worked with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. For six years, he ran his own counselling business, working with other residential school survivors. In 2009, he became the territory’s first child and youth advocate. He married his wife, Estelle Nieman, in May 1997. He has two stepsons and two step-grandsons.
But he doesn’t attribute these successes to any self-help books he read or the Eastern religions he studied. Instead, he changed because of the religion some may say caused his pain in the first place. At the age of 39, he found Jesus. It was only after praying and reading the Bible that he found lasting change, he said.
In a hotel room in Vancouver, he felt God’s presence, he said. He flushed his marijuana down the toilet. But, just like his descent into addiction, his journey to faith began much earlier, he said.
His mother played a key role in this part of his life as well, said Nieman. When he was 17, he remembers her praying for him while he was hungover. For years, even when he was drunk or doing drugs, he couldn’t forget her prayers. Now, he is an ordained minister with the United Pentecostal Church International and pastors a small church in Carmacks.
While he’s found healing, there’s still a lot of work to do. More truth and reconciliation hearings are needed, he said. And addiction treatment centres should be based out on the land. There’s a “peace out there you can’t find anywhere else,” he said, and First Nations people have a special connection to the land.
Early intervention is key for children with mental health problems, but it can be hard for them to get a correct diagnosis when they have to wait for someone to come up from Outside, he said. That’s why he’s been advocating for a treatment centre for youth in the territory.
Anyone can change, said Nieman. But that only happens by acknowledging the full truth, especially about painful past experiences.
“Whatever has happened to you is part of who you are. It’s your truth. And it’d be a waste of time to try to hide and deny it because it will also be there to bother you and keep you from being everything you really ought to be,” said Nieman.
But telling the truth is hard work. Nieman knows. Eighteen years ago he started writing his memoirs, but he put it on the shelf. Memories of one painful time would trigger thoughts of others, and he found it hard to work through his past while working in the present. When he started the book, he was a student at Yukon College.
Last year, he decided to just sit down and write it. “I didn’t have no help from nobody,” he said. He spent five weeks in Regina, Sask. putting it all together. On Friday, the official launch of Free Man Walking will be held at Mac’s Fireweed Books from noon until 2 p.m.
The book is self-published. While Nieman doesn’t expect to make money off of it for a while – he estimates it will retail for just under $27 – any money he does earn he intends to donate to work in the communities.
“I know I’ve been given a second chance of life,” he said, “and I want (others) to know that they can have freedom, too.”
Contact Meagan Gillmore at