June 25, 2019
This conversation was definitely one of my favourites. Sitting alone with his hands clasped together, Jose didn't seem to want to be bothered at first. His body language was turned inward; he spoke with his voice but turned his body away. As we kept sharing I noticed Jose slowly turn his body more openly towards me. I challenged him with tougher questions, he took up the challenge with deeper insights. I hope you enjoy this story.
Your name is Joe but your ID says Jose-
“Josey”, it’s French.
So you’re from Belgium. How long were you in Belgium for?
I was born in Belgium in 1949, was there for a year, we moved to Luxembourg, where my mother is from. We lived there until 1956, came to Canada in 1956.
Wow, so it’s been a while that you’ve been here. Did you move directly to Edmonton?
Nope. We moved to Montreal and from there to Kitchener, Ontario. Kitchener to Sudbury, all around the Sudbury area until I joined the military in ‘67.
So before the military, what were you doing? Were you young? How old were you?
I was 17.
Oh, so super young. You were in just in school. Do you have any great memories of school?
Not really. I was in trouble all the time (chuckles). A lot of fights. Just stupidity.
Why do you think you liked to fight when you were young?
I had to. Being from Europe, at that time in those years. A lot of people ended up using the term: “DP”- deported. So you defend yourself. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That’s the way it goes.
Well, I’m sorry about that. But it seems like you’ve come to terms with it. You know it was a different time.
Oh yeah! Things have changed over the years. Still changing.
Did you know you wanted to go into the military right away?
Yup. Actually, I did. When I was a young boy all I ever heard about was the United States Marine Corps because they liberated Luxembourg and Belgium. One of the sergeants in the marines was my mother’s boyfriend back then. It had a lot of meaning to me so my whole life as I grew up, I wanted to join the marines. But, being in Canada, I couldn’t do that. So, I joined the Canadian military. After the Canadian military, I went down Stateside and I did two tours with the marines: in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Let’s talk about the first part: let’s talk about when you were with the Canadian military.
I did a lot of traveling on the East coast.
Any eye-opening experiences?
Yeah, I’m actually still dealing with it. Trying to get my pension out of it because in 1967 to 1968 in New Brunswick, the United States had a unit up there that was spraying Agent Orange, testing it all over. It’s a chemical defoliant but it is also the one that causes cancer. So, now because of that- I got all the paperwork at home, I could show you if you want.
And the paperwork is for…?
For pension affairs because of this. But the thing is- if you’re not an officer, you don’t exist! Only the officers could get pension for that!
Is that something that still exists?
Oh yes! Oh, yes.
Did you get cancer from that?
No. But you get COPD and everything else. Nerve damage. I got the nerve damage, I can’t even write my name. I got all the paperwork still and I’m still fighting. And I won’t give up (laughs).
How long were you with the Canadian military? From 17 until you were 21… okay not too long of time. But then you went to the marines. Two tours.
Six years. And then I left there to Britain and ended up with another military outfit: Colonel Blackwell. Blackwell’s Mercenaries. An organization out of Britain. So I served time in Ghanda, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, the Congo, French Ghana, British Ghana. I was in my mid-20s. I wouldn’t mind going back but my health is- ha! Shot.
What brought you the most joy from being in the military?
The freedom. The comradeship, the brotherhood. I’ve got a few friends but we don’t keep in touch all that much. We’ll see each other every 5-6 years, go on a big drunk and that’s about it (laughs)! I don’t have any friends here in Edmonton. I don’t associate with anyone, I stay by myself. That’s the way I like it. There’s an old saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt”. So I stay away from people. I like my freedom. I don’t have to answer to nobody, I come and go as I please, I can pick up my stuff out of my apartment, walk out, go up North, East, whatever. I like being a free agent. Now that I got my pension, I’m even more free. I’ve got no papers to sign, money goes into my bank, I don’t got to worry about it.
That’s good. So, what do you like to do in your free time?
I used to do a lot of wildlife photography. Birds, animals, insects. A lot of fishing, camping, gold panning.
Gold panning! Where did you do that?
I do that in Kamloops, Vancouver Island, yeah. In terms of how successful I was, ehhhhh, let’s say I didn’t get richer! It was for fun, but I did make a profit off it. The thing is: if you enjoy what you’re doing, that’s the key thing in your life. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, that’s all that matters.
So, what brings you the most joy?
Nothing, really. Just me, walking outside. Seeing wildlife. The birds. I used to have a car to go out of town but I sold out. Gave in my license. Too much road rage!! Had to give in my license before I killed somebody (laughs). So now, I take the bus, the train. I’ll take a bus, I’ll stop off the side of a mountain somewhere, I’ll get off. I’ll stay there.
I feel like if I just got off a train, I would not be very equipped to survive. So, you tell me: how do you survive?
First of all, you have to know that there is always the possibility of you getting hurt. Whether it’s from a fall, off a cliff, off a mountainside, off a landslide, or a wild animal. You never know. Even chopping firewood, you never know. You could cut yourself and it could be severe, So the first thing you got to know is first aid. Always keep a fresh supply with you. A minimum of food: dried goods. There’s water everywhere, so you don’t have to worry about that. A few pots. A good knife, good ax. I use a bow and arrow.
I see you have a bow and arrow being held by a very gorgeous lady as a tattoo.
(Laughs) It’s kind of ridiculous. I used to do a lot of drawing as a kid. I drew these. When I joined the military, I had my artwork with me. The boys took me out and got me drunk one night and when I was drunk, they had me tattooed. They’re unique. I like to say there’s a story behind it: Well she started off looking like this (points to the tattoo of a woman on his left arm), but if she would have kept on hunting instead of playing with him (points to the snake above her), she wouldn’t have got that way (points to the tattoo of a pregnant woman on his right arm). (laughs heartily!!)
That is so good, that’s funny! I like that. That’s still making me laugh- the fact that they’re related makes it even better. Jeez- I have a lot of questions about your time with the marines or with the British-
Oh, you don’t want to know.
I mean, I do want to know about at least one thing, but you get to choose. Is there anything from those years?
My trade during that time- I’m a qualified sniper. So, let’s just leave it at that. Let’s just leave it at that.
Do you want to just keep it like that? We don’t have to get into it. But what about before? Were you by chance trained to become a qualified sniper or what is always a goal of yours?
I’ve always had a knack with rifles. I started shooting a 0.22 when I was six years old. My dad trained me where he would take a piece of wood and pick up shells from off the ground. He would place ten shells equally apart on the wood and let it drift on a pond. So I would have to lay there and would have to hit each shell off, separately, without hitting the wood. Just pick off the shells. That’s how I was trained.
Wow. So how long was it until you became pretty good?
Not very long! Like I said, it was like a natural phenomenon.
That’s very cool! As a person to do something and feel like you have a knack for it. So that knack of yours is probably what drove your purpose in the military?
It did. But uh, over the years I’ve lost my taste of it. That’s why I don’t use a gun no more. It’s no sport. When you know you can take a rifle, or a pistol or anything, and you know that there’s a target- you’re going to hit it. No matter what.
There’s nothing competing against you.
No, there isn’t. Because in hunting, you go out for an animal in the woods, there’s a skill involved. You have to try to get close to that animal, outwit that animal. But the thing is, with a rifle, there’s no skill involved because you could shoot an animal 1500 yards away before that animal even sees you up on a hill. So where is the skill or the enjoyment in that? There’s none.
Is that why you use a bow and arrow?
Yeah, a crossbow. I’ve always had a crossbow, ever since I was a kid.
Do you still hunt?
No. I’ve shot a lot of deer and I’ve shot a few moose. I had a couple of animals that I’ve seen in the woods that I have been close to. Very close. I look at them, they look at me and I just stand and watch them. A pack of wolves- I’ve been close to packs so many times. They are not as dangerous as people say. You just talk, gently. You just look at them. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them unless they get shot at or they are especially hungry since hunting has been poor. Then, there could be a problem. But otherwise- no. It’s like any animal: if confronted by a human, who is taller than most animals, their tendency is to run away or shy away. Avoid contact. But the thing is that most contact is by accident. So that startles the animal which can cause different reactions.
Do you feel like with your time in the wild- because you are talking about a very unique experience of being very close to wild animals- do you feel like they taught you some lessons?
Oh, definitely. Number one: don’t kill unless it’s something you need. You got guys going out there hunting and they shoot everything in sight. For what reason? Target practice? Unnecessary. A wolf, cougar, or a bear will only kill what it needs for food. It doesn’t kill for pleasure. Man does. That’s why I’d rather associate with animals, frankly (laughs).
Are there any other lessons or is that the biggest one? As valuable as it is.
If you go in the woods and you got no food with ya, just watch the animals. Watch the birds. You can eat what they eat. If they don’t eat it, don’t touch it! It’s no good. Seriously. They know. Certain berries you wouldn’t even know if they’re edible or not. You watch the birds: if they can eat it, you can eat it. If the birds don’t touch it, don’t touch it because it’s poison.
When I talked to you about human relations, you didn’t really flourish. But when we started to talk about your relationship with animals-
I am closer to animal life and wildlife than I am to humans. I have more respect for them, I learn more from them. An animal will not betray you. They won’t turn on you and they don’t bite the hand that feeds them. Humans? Forget it. Can’t trust them.
After talking about everything we just talked about, what was the happiest moment of your life?
Well, I guess, the birth of my two kids. I got a daughter and a son, I got a grandson now. I haven’t seen him in a long time. He’s 15 now. They’re back in Ontario. My daughter is in Canola, my son is in Red Lake.
Are you still in touch with their mother?
No. I met her in Ottawa. I went down to a food bank to get some groceries. I couldn’t carry them back because my back was injured. She helped me carry my bags but she never left. Then just one thing after another, yeah.
Why do you feel it fell apart?
I couldn’t trust her. I come home from work one day, two kids at home, just little babies. My son was only a month and a half old. I come home and he’s on the floor covered in crap, my daughter is on the floor covered in crap, and I couldn’t find her. I go to the bedroom. That’s where I found her, with the neighbor! They both went out the window. Got rid of them.
So, you ended up raising your children?
Yup. This is after the military, this was 35 years ago.
They’re in Ontario but you’re here. Why did you come to Alberta?
I came here because my parents were in Vancouver, my dad had just passed away and my mother was ill so I came back here to see them. Children’s aid looked after my children back then. They told me I wasn’t getting my kids back, they said I was too violent. That’s how they classified me because of my military history. So, uhhh, I fought with them for a number of years until my daughter turned 18 and my son- they kicked him out and put him on the street in Winnipeg.
They classified you as violent why? Were you diagnosed with PTSD?
No. They classified me as a violent- I don’t have a violent history on my police record. No violence on it whatsoever. It’s only because of my military history and now being a single parent, they didn’t like that back in those days.
Did they try reaching out to your family to help with raising the kids?
Oh yeah. They wouldn’t. After a while, they said, “That’s it.” They came in, they took the kids, I got into an argument with them, the cops come, next thing I know- I’m in jail for three months.
Would you say that was the darkest time of your life?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I’ve had a lot of misery in my life time. Seen a lot of death and everything else. But nothing in the world can compare to the hurt you feel when you lose your kids. (takes a moment).
Do they visit you while in prison? Your kids?
No. They were 8 or 9 years old. They couldn’t come to the jail because I was transferred 400 miles away to a jail. And even after I got out, it took 18 months before they let me visit. At that time they had moved my kids out of the province to another province- which is illegal. They put them in Winnipeg in foster homes.
Twenty-one months of you incarcerated then away from your kids.
The time I was away from my kids because of them, you might as well say I was incarcerated because jail has got nothing compared to what that feels like.
Of course. I’m so sorry about that.
What was life after those 18 months?
Uhhh, my first visit was with my daughter and I wasn’t allowed to… She was in a room with two workers and a police officer. She would come over, she stood in front of me, she put her hand on my head and tried to give me a kiss- HOLY COW! All hell broke loose. “Don’t touch her! Don’t touch her!” they would yell. “I’m not!!!!”. I’m sitting like this here my daughter comes up and goes to give me a kiss- I almost flipped out. I threatened to kill the son of a bitch right there and I got another six months.
Oh my God. I couldn’t imagine. I know that it’s history but- what you could dwell on in the positive I guess is that your daughter was very happy to see you.
Oh hell yeah! I didn’t even know where she was for a number of years. I was actually in Kelowna at the drop in centre there on a computer and I got a message. “Jennifer Peacock wants to talk to you”. I don’t remember any Jennifer Peacock! Kept on bugging me so I opened the site up and there are pictures of my daughter and my son when they were little. Who in the hell would have those pictures? It was my daughter. She married some biker by the name of Peacock.
Have you reconnected?
Ahhhh, somewhat. We talk maybe once a month. Long-distance relationships don’t work, too. Because it just makes it harder. It’s even harder to talk to somebody long distance. It’s not the same sitting here talking face to face. Last time I saw Jennifer was in ‘98.
What are your last few things that you wish to do?
I don’t have any.
I think you want to visit your kids.
Actually, I do and I don’t. Because I know if I go down there, there’s gunna be trouble because of her husband.
Well, he doesn’t even know you.
I know him. I used to live where he did. There’s history. First thing I know is that he’s abusive, so the first thing I’m going to do when I see him is I’m gunna drop him.
But your goal is to see your daughter. Is he the only person in your way?
I’ve come to the realization that we all make our beds and we all sleep in it. She’s made her choices.
What about your son? We don’t know where he is right now.
My son is up in Red Lake, Ontario. He don’t even talk to me. He talks to me once a year or something like that. Do what you want to do, it’s your life. You have to look at reality and you have to accept what there is. Because the longer you live in resentment, it’s not going to affect them any. They’re going to be happy. Why should you be miserable when they’re happy? Sounding like Chinese philosophy, hey? (laughs). It’s true.
Unrelated to that, how long have you been here in Edmonton?
I came back here four years ago. I moved around homeless shelters: Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, over to Prince George, Prince Rupert, Kamloops, Kelowna, Vernon, Penticton, Nanaimo, Vancouver- all I did was make rounds from one shelter to another. I didn’t have a fixed income- I worked parttime because of my back and everything else. Work a little bit here or there.
This was before you could access your pension?
Yes. Six years now I’ve had access. I’m 71 now. The last six years I finally got a right around the corner here. It’s run by rotary club, it’s for veterans. Nice place there, I’ve been there since January.
Congratulations, I’m happy for you. Do you like it there?
Let’s pick one good thing and one bad thing.
It’s clean, it’s quiet, but I’m bored! (laughs)
Are a lot of the veterans older?
They’re not all veterans. It’s housing for anybody 55, 60. It’s Right to Home Housing.
So, it’s not connected to OFSS. What’s your relationship with OFSS?
I like it but there are things. Down here, yeah it serves its purpose, it’s quiet, and it’s enjoyable. Upstairs- I stayed upstairs way before I moved into the rotary- I moved in, I lasted four days, I moved out. I just walked out. I can’t handle the drunks, the garbage, the drug addicts, the guys up at 2, 3 AM drinking, people come up to your door knocking looking for a drink. You go to the washroom and there’s urine on the floor, there’s crap on the floor. Four days, I walked out.
Oh, that’s tough. I’m happy you found a good home though. “Clean” was one thing you made sure to say about it!
It was all Veteran Affairs. They have Veteran’s Canada on 97th, it’s got a newly opened drop-in center. I visit them, I like that they look after the veterans. Not just recognition but what they do is they have coffee, you can use a computer. Things like that. Here’s their card.
Would you say they are your first point of contact if you need help?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. My experience with them has been good, really good. I screwed up a few months ago. I hadn’t seen my men for a while and I went on a big drunk. I didn’t pay my rent for two months. I figured okay I’m gunna get the boot, no big deal. They contacted me, they talked to me, my rent’s paid. They paid the rent, they paid for everything. I didn’t ask for it.
Humans aren’t perfect, we make mistakes. So to have someone have your back that way-
Well, the thing is when you don’t drink for 28 years and all of a sudden you run into a couple of old army buddies, and you go on a binge- yup. It’s great to see the guys.
Are you about to show me something special? (Shows a medallion). “To thine self be true”
28 years of sobriety.
So that was your 28-year chip. Were you an addict?
No, I just drank because I enjoyed drinking. It’s a big culture in the military. When my daughter was born, I was working in a bar. She was born at 2 in the afternoon, I was at the hospital in the delivery room. I went back to work, back to the bar after. Everybody in the bar knows me, “Oh, congratulations, congratulations” I had two tables full of booze. I gave them all a look, took one shot of scotch, drank it, and said, “The rest is yours. I quit.” I still worked there, but I never drank. It’s a matter of priorities, that’s all it is.
It’s like the motto about balance, it’s all about balance. It’s been a pleasure. I learned a lot. Thank you for confiding in us and we are so happy we met you. I’m looking forward to seeing you again when we come back!
Oh, I don’t come here that often. Like once or twice a day. Maybe have a coffee-
Well, we come here once or twice a month so… you definitely come here enough for us to see you again! (I place my hand on his arm)
(Laughing hard) Oh, I’ve been touched by her! (Laughing) How lucky did I get!