Gaston Tremblay remembers camping and fishing in Kawartha Lakes and surrounding areas with his family twice a year in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was a peaceful and tragically short time of his life.
He tried three times over the years to get back here, where he believed things might be better for him. By the time he was 14, though, his then-undiagnosed mental health issues sent him on another path — to his first stay in a psychiatric ward.
Afterwards he found himself homeless and on the streets across Canada, an anguished journey that would last more than 18 years and cost him nearly everything he held dear.
Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s too common. According to a 2016 study between 35-40,000 youth across Canada are currently homeless. More than 85 per cent of homeless youth fall into the “high symptom/distress” category for mental health and 42 per cent reported at least one suicide attempt.
At 12 Tremblay started having delusions, he told the Advocate, “thinking [bad] things were going to happen and acted accordingly, protecting [himself] from his fears.” By 13 he was virtually homeless, due to a lack of support from his family who did not condone his behaviours. He often couch-surfed between friends and relatives, sleeping outside and occasionally staying at his Grandma’s house which was considered a safe zone. He soon began using alcohol and drugs which exacerbated the underlying mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide.
During his stay at a psychiatric ward he was “pumped full of pills” with unpleasant side effects because he had been tagged as an addict and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Later he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, then bipolar. Trembay says that “mental illness runs in my family.”
He lost three uncles and a cousin to suicide due to mental illness by the time he was 15.
Not long after his release from the hospital, he ran into a man from the Niagara Region who would eventually be convicted of sexual assaults on many young people. Tremblay was “enticed…into doing some drugs” and says he was raped for over a week until he escaped.
The experience was so upsetting that he went to his Grandma’s house and never told anyone until sharing his story now with the Advocate. Once he left her place he was back on the streets, now selling drugs and prostituting himself to get by in Toronto.
Tremblay says as a teen he sold drugs and stole, things he stopped doing during his teenage years. “I sold my body for money or just a place to stay as I got older. I worked, even [while] homeless, always trying to better myself but my brain just kept taking me out.”
Nearly 60 per cent of homeless youth in Canada are violently victimized.
Tremblay explains that he “wanted a normal life with relationships and working great jobs,” but his manic cycles often destroyed what he tried to build. He travelled extensively across Canada working on tug boats on the east coast and making big money in the oil patch out west. His manic phases “screwed him up.”
“After a while I decided that being alone is just easier [because] no one hurts but you.”
During the cycle of working, manic spells, losing the job, and back on the streets, Tremblay says that “the biggest barrier I faced trying to get off the streets is the system itself.”
“I, like many who were, or are, on the streets don’t bother with Ontario Works or ODSP (Ontario Disability Supper Program). You are judged the moment you go into one of those offices… in most cases they just tell you to go back to the shelter.”
“The second barrier people face is the police always trying to charge you with something or just outright harassing the homeless.”
“I got convicted for a joint that shows up as possession of narcotics on my criminal record, along with a few more just like that, which makes so I can’t pass security checks for work in the ship yards where I could be working now.”
At one point in his life Tremblay came back to Kawartha Lakes to work on the Ross Memorial Hospital expansion. Here he lived in a tent or sometimes at the Brock House in Peterborough. Tremblay explains that he “always wanted to establish [himself] in the area because it’s a beautiful place. I loved to go fishing there and the people are great.”
Sadly for Tremblay, he says “mental illness took me out.”
About 12 years ago, Tremblay says he was able to stabilize the effects of his mental illness with the use of marijuana. As long as he avoided booze and cocaine he stayed “mostly normal.”
At this point, he says “I got into a relationship with a really good and caring woman, who also had two great stepchildren.”
But he let his guard down, he says. “I started drinking too much and slowly got ill again until I lost it all. I have been alone since.”
Once again he stopped drinking and using cocaine and has been clear of any major mental illness for about seven years now, with no significant episodes.”
Tremblay, now 49, works as a roofer these days and has his own apartment in Welland but is currently on Employment Insurance. He also advocates for others who are marginalized or poor.
His difficult journey has cost him a stable career, and the love of a good woman and family. He no longer holds out hope of forming a steady relationship.
Tremblay says that his motivation for telling his story is so that more people know the realities that some people face. He’d like people to start “pressuring governments to act on the social issues we have.”
“What we have has failed for decades,” he says, referencing the social support system.
“Most of all, says Tremblay, he wants to be “the voice for the ones that feel unheard or cared for to get things changed.”
The estimated costs in Canada for youth homelessness are between $4.5-6 billion annually, something that more prevention and housing could help to lessen considerably.
Finally, Tremblay believes that providing a basic income is part of the solution.
“I’ll tell you if there was a guaranteed income none of what happened in my life would’ve happened I don’t think.”
He says whenever he wasn’t ill, he liked to work.
“If a guaranteed income was in place with enough money to live a proper life for a person like me, who has always tried to work but had recurring mental illness, then it would have saved me from a life on and off the streets.”
When asked to envision his life under such circumstances, he says he could have gone back to school, but in the end he would “probably be a captain on a tug boat.”
“And most likely I would’ve led a great life.”