Written by Shaun Loney
Chris Courchene grew up a fairly happy kid on Manitoba’s Sagkeeng First Nation. He was raised to age 13 by his grandparents as many of his peers were. Chris’ mother, who lived in the city, was unable to look after him because of her addiction to drugs – an attempt to cover up her own lived pain from residential schools.
When Chris turned 13, his mom had him moved to the city as he was fast enough and smart enough to be useful selling drugs in Winnipeg – and making money to support his mother’s addictions. Chris thinks he was arrested as many as 50 times between the time he was 13 and 24. He says he was basically raised in the penitentiary system. In Manitoba, this isn’t all that uncommon as 78 percent of inmates are Aboriginal.
The last time he got out, his probation officer sent him to a job interview at BUILD Inc – an award winning social enterprise in Winnipeg’s north end that was set up for people like Chris. He was hired on the spot BECAUSE of his criminal record, lack of high school, and lack of work experience. At BUILD he took parenting classes, learned trades-based math, got a driver’s license, grade 12 and valuable work experience. Chris excelled at insulating and doing water retrofits in low income housing. But beyond all that, he discovered hope. He had two young children and he saw a practical path that he could break not only his cycle but the path that his kids were sure to go down if he didn’t do something with his own life.
“No amount of incarceration was going to stop me,” said Chris. “I was motivated by my kids and BUILD gave me the ladder. All I had to do is climb it.”
Chris is now a supervisor at a partner social enterprise to BUILD called Manitoba Green Retrofit where he does apartment renovations for Manitoba Housing and installs energy efficient furnaces. He is a mentor to many young men getting out of the crime scene. He is also a great dad.
BUILD is what human rights looks like to people who are easily excluded like Chris.
BUILD is what human rights looks like to a child who can see her dad go out to work in the morning and come home feeling as though he’s contributed to society.
BUILD is what human rights looks like in our corner of the economy, where there is a place for everyone.
I once asked Chris if he would change anything about his past. He took a while to respond and then said: “No because it is what made me who I am.” At BUILD we honour our lived experiences – whether they are privileged or marginalized.
I’ve helped co-found and mentor now 10 social enterprises. We hire people like Chris to lower utility bills in low income housing by installing geothermal, solar thermal as well as doing energy and water retrofits. We also do apartment renovations. And more recently we’ve started a farm and healthy food market in a diabetes plagued First Nation. We have lowered utility bills for low income families and their service providers by $6 million a year and employed people like Chris all along the way.
I’ve come to define heroes as people who overcome daily barriers that the rest of us take for granted. Chris is a hero who is surrounded by heroes at our group of social enterprises.
Our social enterprises all have wait lists that are many years long – lists that are made up of heroes-in-waiting like Chris. They struggle for support from Federal and Provincial governments obsessed with an outdated incarceration model that make our communities less safe and costs taxpayers many, many more times the investment required to make families stronger. We are looking forward to the day when human rights means governments who make social enterprises a priority. And human rights shouldn’t have to wait.