It was a long, hard road out of hell, but Prince Rupert’s Vernon Barker made it out alive.
After conquering addiction, a violent temper and suicidal tendencies, Vern said his life is now changing for the better everyday.
Vern’s journey could make the most stoic person cry, but he doesn’t share his story to garner sympathy; he hopes that it will inspire others to make positive changes in their lives.
“When you say something to hurt someone’s feelings, how do you take those words back so it doesn’t hurt? That’s what my life is like. I can never take away what’s happened. There’s no sense in trying to pretend and act like it didn’t,” he said.
For the first few years of his life, Vern lived with his mother in Whitehorse. But she was struggling to cope with trauma she endured in her life, with Vern being taken from her custody and eventually moved to Greenville when he was six.
Growing up, Vern was regularly the victim of physical abuse, and had also been sexually abused.
“The physical abuse seemed like the norm at the time, especially in my generation. Lots of guys went through physical and sexual abuse, and quite a few passed on before they were 30 … living a fast and furious lifestyle,” Vern said.
“It all stems from residential school. All the abuses were passed on.”
During his childhood, Vern’s escape was playing sports. His favourite was soccer and he was exceptional at the sport. Vern was named MVP of his team at nine years old, beating out teammates as much as four years older.
Sadly, Vern’s mother passed away when he was 13. He says she died before her time because she was unable to recover from the agony of her past.
Vern began to self-medicate when he was a teenager. In his early 20s, Vern started experimenting with cocaine and by the time he was 24 he was a full-blown drug addict. He would spend nearly 20 years stuck in the world of drugs.
And drugs weren’t the only thing Vern struggled with. He also had serious anger issues that would land him in jail many times throughout his life.
“People who deal with a lot of physical abuse become angry people. It’s easy to reenact what you know,” he said, noting he turned that violence on himself a number of times by attempting suicide.
When he was 18, Vern was put behind bars for the first time.
“By the time I was 26 I was going in and out of jail, right until I was 39. It was steady until I was 35,” he said, noting it was mainly because of violent behaviour.
Vern became involved with thugs in jail, abandoning his former wife and their family and winding up in the Main and Hastings area in Vancouver.
He said he became a street-level thug, often being paid to perform violent attacks on people. Vern said during the assaults it was his goal to break bones.
“[Violence] was the tool to surviving on the streets and in jail, and it got me a lot of drugs because I was an addict. I figured out the more violent I could be, the more use I was because not everybody could do it,” he said.
But a little over half a decade ago, Vern’s journey to changing his life started when he received a call from the person who had abused him in his youth, apologizing for what they had done.
“They held themselves responsible, and that helped me,” Vern said.
That same year, another incident would put him on the path to recovery.
Vern returned to Greenville in a wheelchair six years ago after being jumped because of a misunderstanding. The beating was so severe that Vern thought he was going to die, but said the thought of his daughter kept him from letting go.
“In my mind, I was on my way out. But [at that moment a thought of] my oldest daughter … saved my life,” he said.
After returning to Greenville, Vern decided to go to treatment. Around this time he met Trayci, who he married three years ago.
While his sobriety wasn’t immediate, Vern is proud to say he has been clean for five and a half years now.
In 2010, Vern started attending Northwest Community College to earn his Grade 12 diploma, going on to receive an Associate of Arts Degree.
“He was asked to be the valedictorian of his graduating class and his speech made quite the impression on everyone who heard it. He received a standing ovation and there was not a dry eye in the house,” Trayci said, adding because of his speech he was asked to sit on the Prince Rupert Library board of directors, which he did from 2011 to 2013.
It became Vern’s purpose in life to help young people dealing with a rough upbringing. Vern worked with high-risk youth during his time with the Aboriginal Community Services Society, also working with young people while he was employed by the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society.
To inspire teens, Vern spoke at TriCorp’s youth conference in 2012, as well as in the Whispers in the Wind conference and Metlakatla youth conference in 2013.
While he once mistreated females in his life, Vern has become a huge advocate of ending violence against women.
“I realized the reason why I was all messed up was because of violence against women,” he explained.
Vern has tried to raise awareness on the subject whenever possible, particularly with young people.
“A lot of men treat their wives with disrespect and the kids see that and pass it on,” Vern said.
To help raise money for the North Coast Transition Society, Vern stepped into a woman’s shoes for the 2013 Mz Judged fundraising pageant, taking the stage as Mz. Fit.
“Although he was completely out of his element, he said he would do it again because of the great cause it was for,” Trayci said.
Furthermore, Vern returned to the soccer field in recent years, helping to form a Prince Rupert men’s soccer team in 2011 and becoming the president of the Prince Rupert Football Club. Now 45, Vern continues to play on the team.
The same year, Vern initiated the Wolves basketball team in the city’s men’s league, which he remains the coach of.
Then, in 2012 Vern became coach of the Friendship House Cubs intermediate basketball team, leading the team to second place in the 2014 All Native Basketball Tournament.
“I kind of live my life through sports right now. I think it saved my life when I was a kid,” he said.
Vern hopes it can do the same for players who are struggling on his teams, and he is doing all he can to be someone they can confide in.
“The best way to get out of [your]self is to do something for someone else. There’s so many things that went wrong in my life; so many negatives. The only way to take that suffering away is to get out of myself,” explained Vern regarding why he prioritizes helping others.
But it’s family that’s most important of all to Vern. He and Trayci are doing what they can to give their daughter Cadence, who is nearly five years old, the best life possible.
Vern is working to establish relationships with his three older daughters, Mariah, Taneesha and Alisha, and son, Vern Jr., in the years since becoming sober.