The Yukon’s new child advocate made a deal with God in a skid-row hotel room 16 years ago.
And Andy Nieman’s still living up to his end of the bargain.
In early December, the clean-cut, middle-aged, Northern Tutchone social worker was sworn into his post at the legislature, becoming the Yukon’s first child advocate. Independent of government, Nieman has the power to investigate complaints, challenge legislation, represent youth in court and tackle systemic problems.
Although brand new, the job, for Nieman, has a certain familiarity to it—only this time he’s on the outside looking in.
Growing up “was pretty rough,” he said, sipping Earl Grey at the Yukon Inn on Thursday morning.
Nieman ended up in residential school in Lower Post where he experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
“It set a pattern for rebellion,” he said.
The Whitehorse group home was a little better, but if Nieman broke curfew or was caught drinking, the 13-year-old was locked in a downstairs bathroom without food for a day.
From bathroom lockdowns, Nieman graduated to the Whitehorse Correctional Centre where he spent a total of eight and a half years. He also did a couple years time in Prince George, most of it for break and enters and theft, “to feed my habit,” he said.
By the time he ended up on skid row in Vancouver, Nieman was a skinny, long-haired malnourished drug fiend, hooked on heroin, cocaine and booze. At some point in that blur of highs, withdrawal, detox and binges, Nieman ran into a man on the street who asked if he could pray for him. With a shrug, Nieman listened as this man asked Jesus to watch over him, and not let him enjoy drugs anymore.
A few hours later, Nieman was back in his hotel room with a couple bags of cocaine and a bunch of “skunk weed.”
He was just getting ready to inject the first bag of coke, when it spilled all over the hardwood floor.
“I was so mad,” said Nieman. “It was wood boards and I couldn’t get it back.”
Shaking with rage, Nieman managed to get the second bag of cocaine liquefied and injected it, but he was too angry to enjoy it.
“Then I thought of that guy on the street talking to Jesus,” said Nieman. “He said, ‘Don’t let Andy enjoy drugs anymore.’”
A little shaken, Nieman rolled a joint, but after smoking it, he still didn’t feel anything. “And I smelled it and it was good stuff,” he said.
So Nieman decided to make a deal with God. It went something like this: ‘Jesus, if you get me a bed at detox, I’ll know you exist and I’ll start believing.’
It was an impossible request, and Nieman knew it. On Vancouver’s Lower Eastside, the waitlist to get into detox was months long.
But holding up his end of the bargain, Nieman walked over in the morning and asked for a bed.
“Man, you’re lucky,” said the intake worker. “A guy just walked out 10 minutes ago, we have one spot.”
Nieman never looked back.
“I never had another hit, another drink, not even another cigarette,” he said.
Although God played a role in Nieman’s recovery, and he’s now an ordained minister with the United Pentecostal Church International, the Almighty will be staying out of his child advocate role.
“It’s unethical to talk about (God) because I don’t want to put my beliefs onto someone else,” he said.
Nieman, who has been a trauma counsellor, a residential school adviser and Kwanlin Dun’s community wellness worker, is thrilled to be shifting his focus to youth.
“They are leaders,” he said. “And I don’t mean they will be our next leaders, they are leaders now.”
During last year’s Yukon Children’s Act revision, the government was criticized for not consulting properly with First Nations and, specifically, for not writing a child advocate into the act.
Several months later, Nieman’s job was included in the draft.
“I’m like a children’s ombudsman,” he said.
Still in the process of establishing his office and hiring staff, Nieman will start taking calls in April.
“I’m not sure if it will be a flood, or it will begin as a slow trickle,” he said.
When the calls come in, Nieman will be able to access the child’s files, visit the group home or residence and make recommendations.
“I can direct them to programs and services that will meet their needs,” he said. Of course, there is also the possibility that some of those programs and services don’t exist.
“If they’re not available, then we have to look at what we can do to change that and bring these systemic problems to light,” he said.
But Nieman doesn’t want to focus only on the negative. “I want to point out solutions,” he said.
One thing that came to mind was the need for a youth shelter in Whitehorse, an issue that’s been plaguing the city for more than a decade. And Whitehorse is not the only place that’s struggling.
Travelling from one Yukon community to another, as an independent counsellor, Nieman noticed a consistent lack of youth facilities over the years.
“They need a place to hang out,” he said.
“And youth need to be encouraged to take more initiative in terms of creating their dreams. There are enough sober, talented youth in every community who are spark plugs, it’s just a matter of co-ordination.”
However, as child advocate, Nieman may not be visiting the communities as often. The job description only allows for three to five trips within the territory every year, as well as two trips outside.
Five Yukon trips is not a lot for an advocate mandated to care for children across the territory. “It seems like a number they just came up with off the top of their heads,” he said. “But I will make recommendations as my job demands.”
That’s the beauty of Nieman’s position – if something’s not working, he has the power to change it, as long as government co-operates.
But so far, Nieman’s not too worried about government roadblocks.
“My power is that I’m a neutral body,” he said. “I inform, support, assist and advise children and youth, and my power is that I sincerely have the best interests of the child at heart.”
To make sure he’s on the right track, Nieman wants to set up a youth advisory board, so when recommendations or questions come his way, he can check with the very people they affect.
“Young people mainly deal with a loss of identity,” he said. And many suffer the effects of residential school trauma passed on by parents.
“They might as well have been in residential school with us,” he said.
Although 60 per cent of kids in care are First Nation, skin colour doesn’t mean a thing, said Nieman, who’s part Dutch and German.
“When you’ve suffered trauma and abuse it doesn’t matter what race you are,” he said. “I will be a voice for all children and youth.”
For Nieman, whose childhood experiences carved him a tough path through life, it’s a chance to give something back.
“I think it’s perfect,” he said.
“All the stars lined up.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at