Searching For Happiness
One man's journey leads him to Cochrane
Posted By Sara Francis
When Lance Auger smiles, his face wrinkles up like a dried prune and his lips curl inward over toothless gums.
Swaddled in layers of clothing, Auger perched himself along West Side Drive Cochrane between Dairy Queen and Cochrane Palace for five days earlier this month.
As cars drove by he patiently sat holding a cardboard sign with thick black capital letters that read: “B.C. MOVE FIXED INCOME PLEASE HELP."
After some time a woman pulled her van over and a teenaged boy stuck out his arm holding a $10 bill.Auger limped over smiling and repeating, “Thank you” and “God bless you.”
After spending 40 years of his life on and off the streets, the 52-year-old is feeling particularly grateful, hopeful and filled with a renewed sense of purpose.
Travelling from northern Alberta, Auger stopped in Cochrane to avoid the busy hustle of Calgary before hitchhiking to Enderby in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley where he intends to put down roots close to his son and two granddaughters.
“I love my son and I love my grandchildren dearly and to me the Creator gave me that. He’s given me a second chance to maybe not be the father I could have been to my son, but definitely I can be a grandfather to my grandchildren,” said Auger.
Homeless panhandlers in Cochrane are novel; in fact, they are so rare the Town of Cochrane doesn’t have a recorded count.
“I can’t even give you numbers it’s so few,” said community peace officer Glen Fisher.
That’s not the case in Calgary where, just a half an hour drive east of Cochrane, the Calgary Homeless Foundation estimates a minimum of 4,060 people are homeless on any given night, with nearly 70 per cent having a history of substance abuse.
And Auger's story is no different. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for decades, but said he's clean today and has been for the last seven years.
"The biggest message I could give to anybody in this world today (is) hands down — if you don’t do drugs and street drugs do not ever try ‘em and do not ever do them, you might like ‘em," said Auger.
Auger’s life has been a series of highs and lows. In his 20s, he married and had a son. Seven years later the couple divorced and he lost custody and contact with his boy.
He's been in an out of rehab programs with varying degrees of success until he finally stayed sober long enough to get a university education at the age of 43, 30 years after he first left home and started using drugs.
“Life’s a lot of things and boring is not one of them,” chuckled Auger. "I sit in awe sometimes because I know I did everything in my power not to be here, and I honestly believe God in his wisdom and His glory has kept me around for some reason and I give thanks for that every day."
Auger was born in Grand Prairie, Alta., the middle child of four siblings. His parents divorced before he turned 10 and three years later he had his first drink. After a bad experience blacking out he swore off alcohol for four years only to turn to drugs instead.
Doing drugs “was one of the few things I was ever good at. I wasn’t good at school. I wasn’t good at family life. When I started doing that I found out I could do more than anybody, and when you get wrapped up in that kind of thing it feeds your ego and after a while it just becomes a way of life for way, way too long,” he said.
By 13, Auger was a runaway. out of the house come spring, back in the house in the fall, until he left for good on his 16th birthday — Christmas Eve morning. For the next 20 years he was in and out of jobs, on and off the streets all to feed his addiction, until he finally reached a tipping point.
At 32, Auger held down a job working at a Caterpillar dealership in Grand Prairie for 3.5 years — it was his longest standing job, until it ended after a dispute with his girlfriend, one that had him arrested. When he learned she had cheated on him, the pair got into an argument, things heated up and she ran into the house. Auger kicked in the front door, assaulted her and tried to set the building on fire.
“That’s a pretty good reason, I think, to go get some help,” said Auger, who wound up in court three months later.
“My human experience has not been a very happy place. I’m not saying it’s all been bad, and there’s been a lot of learning, but I’ll tell ya the first 35 years were hell on earth.”
At 35, Auger joined a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group and cleaned up for 14 months, long enough to upgrade his high school credentials at Grand Prairie Regional College.
“I can remember sitting in Narcotics Anonymous meetings and I would hold onto my chair until my knuckles were white so that I didn’t run out of that room or get up and hit somebody who would say something I didn’t like,” said Auger. “I can remember being so full of Lance and so ignorant of life and being emotionally still 13-years-old . . . I sat in my chair one day and I said, 'you know something Lance — it’s not likely — but you might be wrong.' And I’ll be darned, my mind started to open a little bit and I started to see some light there and I realized, it took some more time, but I realized just how wrong I was.
“The addict is a true example of the closed mind, being unteachable — that’s when I started to be teachable and I started being able to change some things in my life.”
While Auger did pass all five of his high school core subjects, he lost his sobriety and abused drugs until he decided to clean up again so he could further his education at the University of Manitoba. He graduated with a degree in criminology and a minor in Native studies, but not without the help of an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group.
“Those people just loved me — that’s all they did — and we had the greatest times. They taught me so many wonderful things,” said Auger, smiling.
“I found out through the program I didn’t like that man, I didn’t like that man one darn bit,” he said.
“The program gave me some hope in a hopeless state of mind and body.”
Upon graduating from university, Auger began his professional career working with the Main Street Project, a 24-hour crisis centre in inner-city Winnipeg.
He found it challenging to work in an institutionalized setting, serving people he could all too easily identify with.
“When you spend as much time around the pain of the streets, and the drugs, and alcoholism, and the violence, and the gangs you can't detach from that, I can't I'm too emotional with it,” said Auger. Six months later he quit.
These last seven years he’s continued to live on the streets, but said he’s been clean since 2002 when he found out he had contracted HIV.
“They’ve told me don’t worry about the HIV, the Hepatitis C will get you,” said Auger, who has lived with the latter disease since his 20s. He believes both diseases were contracted through intravenous drug use.
“That’s been one of the hardest things for me to deal with is the loss of my health,” said Auger, explaining it’s another reason why he wants to plant down roots.
With the money he's earned panhandling, he recently bought a trailer where he plans to live when he settles in B.C. near his family, something he's avoided doing for years.
“The core to the disease of addiction is I believe that gut wrenching loneliness that only an addict knows,” said Auger as a tear rolled down his cheek. “You stay away from anything and anybody that cares about you because if they are not addicts they don’t understand and they hurt so bad and the only reason they hurt is they love you so much.”
Auger plans to join the nearest NA or AA group for support and inspiration to stay clean when he’s settled in Enderby. The principles and lessons Auger learned in university and at his addiction support groups keep him grounded and optimistic in what he calls a tormented life's journey. “I’m still here. I’m still learning. I’ve been given an open mind enough to be able to learn that I believe in many ways I’ve become a better person,” said Auger. “I still have my demons, but today at least I can recognize them. I can see them and I try not to feed them. And for an old junkie, God, I’ve been blessed."