Skip to content

‘It was a beautiful moment’

In Our Valley: James Harry
James Harry Sr. is an outreach worker for the Haisla Nation and works to help those in need and bring them back home. (Photo submitted/James Harry Sr.)

James Harry Sr, 53, was born in Kitimat. He had two brothers, Kirk and Jason, and a sister named Audrey. He moved when he was six to Sliamonn which is on the south side of Powell River. However, his stay would not be long.

Harry’s dad, James Harry II, had burned some bridges in the area and the family had to move quickly so they packed up and headed to an old family home on the Comox reserve.

The five years spent in Comox were a tough time for the family and Harry described his dad as a full-blown alcoholic who despite holding some good-paying jobs in logging and fishing, the family did not see any of the money. The move was not an easy period in the family’s life but Harry acknowledges the efforts of his mother, Ada Harry.

“I take my hat off to my mom. She literally transplanted from her community her family, she moved her life to the middle of nowhere where she knew no one and she had to fend for herself and four kids,” said Harry.

Now the family faced another move and Ada packed the kids up and headed back to Kitamaat. However, things wouldn’t work out there and the family then headed to Prince Rupert. Ada got a job working in a cannery. The family would also face some tough times in Prince Rupert.

“Things got rough from there. We had a very bad man that came into our life who was also a product of residential school, very angry, made our life hell for three or four years — lot of anger, lot of violence,” said Harry.

The family would remain in Prince Rupert for quite some time and Harry attended Booth Memorial high school. For much of his life, he played the big brother role in his family, but at the age of 14 he began smoking weed and drinking and he began to lose control of that role.

“When I started the weed and the drinking I enjoyed it because it took me away from what I was going through and what I had gone through. I eventually got kicked out of school,” said Harry.

Harry one night found himself getting pressured to break into a house and as he was living in poverty he jumped at the prospect, only to get caught, something he described as a ‘terrifying experience’.

Harry called his grandmother in Kitamaat and told her what was going on as it was a little bit of a secret at the time. He told her what had happened with the police and said he was tired and she told him to come home.

Harry packed a bag and waited for the morning. It was raining as it usually does in Prince Rupert and both Harry and his bag were soaking wet. He had no luck finding a ride until he saw a brown station wagon. The driver happened to be from his school but only took him halfway back home, dropping him off in the middle of nowhere.

He once again had no luck finding a ride and just as he was about to rest in the tree line he recognized a red vehicle driven by an elder from Kitamaat who offered him a ride.

“About five minutes into the ride I heard some rustling in the back and I looked back and whoever was sleeping back there woke up, sat up and I looked back and it just so happened to be my future wife,” said Harry.

But that was only to be a marriage in the future and Harry was again dropped off, this time in Terrace where he spent the night at an aunt’s before being able to make his way to his grandmother’s at Kitamaat.

The house was cramped and he ended up having to share a room. Harry was taught tradition and he was also taught how to be handsome. For members of the Haisla Nation, being handsome means to do good in the community and in the world.

But the drinking and smoking weed did not stop. Harry aged out of school and ended up moving back to Prince Rupert where he got his first job as a dishwasher. Upon receiving his first paycheck Harry attended a party which would be his introduction to cocaine. His first time trying it, he ended up staying high for two days. Cocaine became his drug of choice.

“I had my own family with my wife and I started working and making money, so it went from once in a blue moon to every time I had a drink I had to have cocaine, it quickly took over my life,” said Harry.

Eventually, his addiction progressed into crack as he continued to chase the high. He did take pride in being a hard worker, only to end up being fired from jobs because he would not show up. The addiction got worse and eventually, Harry found himself in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

“Each time I came down I always knew there was more to it for me. I made that promise that I wouldn’t put my kids through what I went through but here I was doing it,” said Harry.

Following a seven-day bender, he had an epiphany, realizing he had more to offer and that he could be a better dad as well as a better community member.

He reached out to some family members and he returned to Kitamaat. Harry continued his addiction and by that time his wife was also an addict. It was a situation that could not continue as it affected their two children.

“Next morning we woke up I looked at my wife and said that’s gotta be it,” Harry said following one night of drug-taking. “If we’re gonna keep this family, if we’re gonna save this marriage we gotta stop. We made a vow to stop, March 25, 2014, a second attempt at sobriety. Challenged to 90 meetings in 90 days. Took that another step farther — doing almost a whole year of meetings,” said Harry.

The road to recovery was not easy and there was another bump in the road when Harry came home one day to find his wife clutching her chest. The first doctor did not look at her but a second doctor did, findng lumps which were confirmed to be breast cancer.

Janet went to Vancouver for an operation and they lived in a hotel for spring and summer while she recovered from an operation.

Harry began to feel the very familiar pull of Vancouver’s downtown east side.

“Each time I felt that pull I looked at my wife and told her this is what’s happening and I have to get this out of my system,” said Harry.

“It was a very tough walk, every other person I saw was lighting up or putting a needle in their arm,” said Harry as he worked his way through his old neighbourhood. “I made it through and I made it all the way to Victory Square, I looked back and gave myself a pat on the back.”

This moment was special as it set him down a path that he would walk many times in the future. During the walk, he saw a lot of people from his nation along with people he grew up with and he would hand out coffees when he could.

He saw his cousin’s husband who was looking for his own boy and Harry helped in the search but they could not locate him.

Harry kept looking, finding him two days later and, eventually, the boy agreed to return to Kitamaat.

Soon after, Harry found his name being put forward for a job as the Haisla Nation’s outreach worker.

His first task was to help a distraught mother find her daughter back in Vancouver.

“We sat down, ordered coffee and got her some food. I just blurted out that I’m here on behalf of the Haisla Nation and I want you to know you aren’t alone and she just burst out crying, not like a cry but a wail,” said Harry.

She said she couldn’t believe her nation or her family cared about her.

“It was a beautiful moment, got her the detox. She got into a recovery home and that day I remember after that interaction, I went around the downtown east side establishing my rounds and getting used to the area,” said Harry.

Harry has since founded the All Nations Outreach to bring all nations together to help people struggling with addiction. The program has received financial assistance from Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing.

Through his work Harry has also established a program that has given out up to 200 lunches per week in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

“Each lunch consisted of a pair of socks, a sandwhich, a banana, and a drink and trying to get some healthy stuff inside them,” Harry said.

He continues to walk his familiar path around the downtown eastside keeping track of people that are there and helping those that he can.

Christian Aspostolovsky

About the Author: Christian Aspostolovsky

Born and raised in Kitchener Ontario before I found my way up to northwest B.C. working at a small radio station as a news reporter.
Read more