Lying beaten and badly injured on a hotel room floor – his leg fractured and his hand shattered after being attacked and left for dead by members of his own criminal gang – Michael “Bull” Roberts thought about ending his life. He inched closer to a nearby bathroom, where he planned to end it all.
“Before I made it to the bathroom, I said, ‘I want to make one more deal with God – before I die today, I want to feel love once,’” remembers Roberts.
Then, as he began to cry, he “felt forgiven.”
“I swore I would never go back. I’d only go forward,” said Roberts in a recent interview with Yellowknifer.
More than a decade later, Roberts hasn’t looked back.
His moment of clarity, borne from despair, was recounted to students at six NWT schools as part of a three-day speaking tour in the North, which wrapped up late last month.
Roberts, a Newfoundland-born former gang-leader, spoke at St. Patrick and Sir John Franklin high schools in Yellowknife.
He also gave talks at the Kalemi Dene School in Ndilo, Deh Gah School in Fort Providence, Gameti’s Jean Wetrade School and Mezi Community School in Whati.
The speaking tour – aimed at inspiring young people by giving them the tools to deal with trauma and abuse while avoiding drugs and crime – was the result of a partnership between Roberts, the NWT RCMP, the Justice Department and Community Justice and Community Policing.
After turning his life around and abandoning a life where he was the leader of a criminal outfit that moved drugs into communities across Saskatchewan, Alberta and the NWT (including Yellowknife), Roberts travelled the world sharing his story of resilience and redemption.
Last year, he got a phone call.
On the other end was a former NWT Mountie – who once investigated Roberts. The officer, now stationed in Nova Scotia, had learned of the work Roberts was doing, and invited him to talk at schools as a part of a community policing initiative. He was then asked to share his story with young people in the North.
‘It was hell’
Growing up in a small fishing town in Newfoundland, Roberts endured severe physical and sexual abuse beginning when he was just a toddler. At home, he was subjected to daily beatings. At school, he faced constant bullying.
Roberts turned to drugs when he was just 10-years-old.
“I found that getting high was what saved me from the pain,” said Roberts, remembering when he’d sit in the woods, sniffing gas to numb himself from the pending beating that came like clock-work everyday. He was placed in foster care, and at 16 he was a “full-blown” drug addict and alcoholic.
“It was hell,” recalled Roberts.
He left Newfoundland and was a young man living on the mean streets of Toronto when he was introduced to organized crime. He then bounced from Manitoba to Alberta, where he eventually became the leader of a criminal gang, whose far reach extended into the NWT.
But his involvement in the enterprise came to a sudden halt when his own friends ambushed him, leaving him with broken bones and a fractured spine. He turned his back on crime for good.
Now he pursues one of the “greatest joys,” of his new life: helping young people.
“I don’t want these kids to go down the road I went down,” said Roberts.
His speeches look to strip away the glorification of drug use and drug dealing, while delivering messages about the devastating impact of bullying and abuse.
Growing up in a small town, sex simply wasn’t talked about, and sexual education was non-existent, said Roberts. When he was being abused, he didn’t know it was wrong.
“A lot of families still won’t talk about sex,” said Roberts. “But if (abuse) is happening, it’s happening in small communities like these all the time.”
While both girls and boys victimized by abuse face tremendous hurdles in talking about it, he said males often think they’ll be a “rat,” if they speak out.
“I’m telling these guys, ‘look, I’m this big tattooed guy. It happened to me. Speak up. Let someone know. It’s safe to come and talk to somebody,'” said Roberts.
‘You are not alone’
“Those kinds of messages were important for our kids to hear,” said Don Reid, assistant principal at St. Patrick High School, who helped organize the event. Hundreds of students from Grades 8 to 11 attended.
Reid said Roberts delivered a powerful message and emphasized how there’s “nothing romantic whatsoever about the drug trade.”
On the importance of speaking out about abuse and bullying, Reid said, “You never know what kind of day someone is having or what they’re experiencing themselves, and all it takes are your words, either good or bad, to change the balance of how that person’s life goes.”
Chantel Sangris, an educational assistant at Jean Wetrade School in Gameti, said she hopes students who sat in on Roberts’ talk listen to his words.
“You’re not alone,” said Sangris. “It’s good that the kids and community members heard his story because we’re here to help.”
Talks are underway potentially to bring Roberts back to the North for a fall speaking tour.