As John “Buffalo” Killen stood amongst a self-proclaimed second family at Haliburton’s Alcoholics Anonymous to receive his one-year sobriety medal, he was not shy about describing a troubled past.
It was an end to the 57-year-old’s long road to stop a 33-year addiction to cocaine and a new beginning for the rest of his life. His partner, Kathryn McLean, said Killen had gone through an incredible transformation since checking out of rehab December 2018.
“I’ll continue coming every Sunday here. You won’t take me away,” Killen told the audience Jan. 26, 2020. “You guys have no idea how much it means to me. If you knew my past and what I’d been through, you’d be amazed.”
Killen - now two years sober - describes his past as tumultuous. It is filled with years running from the law, more than 14 years in prison, over 20 years of homelessness and a life-changing look in a mirror.
He was born on a reserve, near Kenora Six Nations, before moving to Port Credit in Mississauga. He said he did not know his parents very well as he grew up, as he was consistently away with friends.
He said he got involved with drugs when he was 16, working as part of a larger group of dealers. He began to start using illicit drugs as well.
“I thought the group that I joined was a family. They listened to me. They understood me. They took care of me,” Killen said.
But that life changed at age 19 when Killen said he shot a friend in a trade dispute. The friend survived, according, to Killen, but was severely injured.
“I sat there, waiting for the police because I knew there was no way of me running.”
He described getting out on bail and leaving the country, hitchhiking in the USA for more than two years. Eventually, he was caught and was returned home to Canada, where he was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison.
“It’s a totally different world,” Killen said. “Since I’ve been out, I realize all those years, I have been taking a lot of things for granted.”
Life on the streets When he was released from his long sentence at age 35, Killen said authorities did not provide him much help.
“They don’t give you places to go. They don’t suggest what you should do when you’re out,” he said. “Being 35 years old, being kicked out into society with no help, no communications, no referrals, it was hard for me. So, for (much) of the next 23 years, I was homeless.”
He said he was able to survive by holding doors open for people at a Tim Hortons in Toronto. He knew how to get around and find places to handle his hygiene and laundry.
But Killen was dealing with more than homelessness. He was battling an addiction to cocaine, something that followed him through his years in prison and was still prevalent in his life.
“I know it’s not right, but at the time, it felt like a companion. My main concern was to get my fix for the day,” Killen said. “I think of how much money I spent. I could have built a house with the money I spent on drugs.”
He said his life changed 14 years after being released, when he was taken in by a new homelessness program that helped him transition to permanent housing with assistance. He was able to get an apartment at an affordable rate.
But he said it was not entirely a blessing. Drug dealing was prevalent at his apartment building, he said.
“My addiction got super worse.”
McLean said she met Killen while he was living in that apartment. They encountered each other at Killen’s usual Tim Hortons and hit it off quickly.
“I was in love,” McLean said. “He was good to me.”
She moved in with him. But his lies about his addiction came between them. After three years, she gave him an ultimatum.
“He either got clean and I’d be in his life and support him, or he could use and I didn’t.”
Killen said he did not react much at first.
“I didn’t give a shit. I was getting high,” he said. “I didn’t really care until she moved.”
With an empty apartment and addiction holding him, Killen had an epiphany.
“I went to the washroom and I looked myself in the mirror and I did not like what I saw,” Killen said. “I started crying and actually broke down.”
It was at that point life turned around, he said. He discovered Renascent, a Toronto-based addiction treatment center. He was accepted to begin rehab at a facility in Brooklin, Ontario.
“It was wonderful,” Killen said, adding the counsellors had strong expertise.
Daniel Buller is a part-time counsellor with Renascent who spent time with Killen during his rehab.
“Jon came in a very angry individual and I watched him change,” Buller said. “He mellowed out … I guess he said to himself he’s got no option. This is it and he went out and he followed the rules to the best of his ability.”
McLean said she regularly visited him during his rehab.
“After that, he was just a different, calmer person,” McLean said. “He didn’t fight with me. He didn’t argue over crazy things.”
“Renascent saved me life,” Killen said. “I’m really glad I called.”
Coming to Haliburton
Killen moved to the Wilberforce area soon after coming out of rehab, temporarily residing in a cottage owned by McLean’s family.
“I love it out here in Haliburton. I love Wilberforce, I love the outdoors,” Killen said. “I’m a native. I never did like the concrete jungle.”
Despite the pandemic, Killen said he has gotten by with some odd jobs and the help of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. He is renting out a room in a home in Highlands East, actively looking for work. He also owns a car, which he said is a first for him.
“A year ago, I would never have thought this was possible for me,” he said. “I feel really proud of myself. I’ve come a long way.”
With his life experiences, he said he notices local people abusing drugs as he did.
“For anybody that has an addiction like I do, what they should do is look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves, ‘Is this my life? Is this what I want to be?’”
He said support systems should be stronger and it would have made a difference if he could have gotten into Renascent after he left prison. He said people who judge those with addiction should have “a little compassion.”
“Me getting into that situation, mostly, there’s no one out there to help,” Killen said. “There should be places where you can walk in, no questions asked, tell them you have an addiction and get the help you need.
“Same thing with housing and the homeless,” he added. “They want to get the homeless off the street, they can.”
He added it was critical to have a stable living situation to access the information he needed to get into Renascent’s program. It has a publicly funded option through the Ministry of Health, Buller said, but there is an application process and an approximately three-month waiting list.
“I didn’t like being door-slammed on my face,” Killen said about seeking help while homeless. “Some of these places, they’re not very easy to get to right away. There’s always waiting lists and you know, I just didn’t bother.”
With more than two years of sobriety, Killen said he is living his life more fully. He said it is not about willpower but knowing what you pass up. He also welcomed anyone to call him at 437-345- 1338 if they are facing a problem like his.
“I’ve been doing things I never dreamed of doing when I was high. You really have to stop wanting to use.”
Joseph Quigley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Highlander