YARMOUTH, N.S. – His face his covered with tattoos, but it’s his eyes you’re drawn to.
You wouldn’t think it by looking at him, or from knowing his reputation, that Michael Bull Roberts would find it difficult to tell his story to a room full of students. To a bunch of kids.
But it isn’t easy for a multitude of reasons.
His childhood was a difficult one, he says, filled with bullying and tormenting from students and physical abuse at home. His adult life, he says, was filled with violence – inflicted both by him and on him. Mixed into all this over the years was drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and addiction.
And this only skims the surface.
It’s left Roberts (a former violent gangster who is now an award-winning author and inspirational speaker no longer fueled by hate) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Which is why he found himself – in the midst of a recent tour of high school visits in the region last week to Shelburne, Barrington and Yarmouth high schools – reliving nightmares and puking in his hotel room.
So why put himself through this?
“I still care about you,” he tells students during his presentation at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School. He tells them neither he, nor the RCMP, want to see kids go down the same road he did. And so he hopes his life experience gives them the proper detour.
“It’s important to me,” he says, “and the only thing I have is my voice and my story.”
His presentation engaged the students. A gymnasium full of students, teachers and staff and there was silence – except for the sound of his voice.
Roberts grew up in a small, isolated community in Newfoundland.
“In our house there was absolutely no discussion. At the table no one spoke a word. If dad cleared his throat everyone jumped. We were scared of him,” he says.
He refers to himself as a sickly kid with no friends. A kid afraid to walk past people’s homes, worried those inside would “come and get me.” It went beyond bullying. He tells a story about kids injecting turpentine into his arm with a syringe and of being tied up and thrown in a snowbank, left there for hours. When he got home, he says, he got a beating – first, for allowing himself to be tied up. Secondly for getting frostbite.
By the time he was 10 years old he was snorting gasoline in a neighbour’s garage.
“When I got high it numbed the pain,” he says.
At the age of 12 he confided in a school counsellor and the principal he was being abused. Instead of receiving help, a phone call was placed home, which earned him another beating, he says. He cried during that beating, even though crying was also a no-no in his household.
Snorting gas turned to smoking weed and doing other drugs to escape the physical and mental pain in his life. Another escape came from western novels, where he fantasized about living that kind of life.
But instead of living a fantasy, he says he was a broken kid. On a day he got detention and had a letter to have signed at home, he says he instead left home that day and never returned.
Eventually people did step in to help and he went to a foster home. There he says he found a concept foreign to him – kindness. It left him confused and so he acted out, getting drunk, getting high, even self-mutilating himself.
By 16 he was a full-fledged drug addict and alcoholic, he says, bouncing from foster home to foster home, to a boy’s school and eventually a ward for the criminally insane after he tried to kill a person.
From living in an isolated community as a kid, he went to solitary confinement as a teenager, and then to being exposed to serial killers and rapists. Home later became a penitentiary where he says he went to a “man’s jail as a little kid.”
“When I say there were rats the size of beavers, I kid you not,” he tells the students.
And those were the least of the horrors.
A NEW LIFE
His life is a long story filled with many disturbing twists and unsuccessful attempts at normalcy through employment, where his options were basically limited to being a bouncer or washing dishes in a kitchen.
And so when the opportunity arose to become involved in organized crime, he took it. After all, the boot camp in Alabama that was supposed to straighten him out hadn’t worked. It was supposed to last four years. He lasted eight days.
Over the years he says he tried to find acceptance but never fit in anywhere. He couldn’t relate to youth. He describes himself at the time as having been hard core.
“I was a gangster at 18,” he says.
Even when he tried make it with a legitimate job, he was still selling drugs on the side.
He says a pivotal time in his life came when he got arrested for doing something he actually wasn’t guilty of. Pleading guilty, however, was the easier of the routes. Without getting into details of the offence he says, “It ruined my life.”
As the years went on, and he was living out west, he was told by others that he should be taking over towns and busting towns. He wasn’t the sickly kid anymore. And he was tired of having nothing and being broke financially and so organized crime and the gangster life appealed to him.
But looking back it wasn’t a good life to have led.
“I destroyed a lot of lives – not just from my violence, but the drugs I sold and the guns I sold,” he tells the students. He may not have been there when people died from the drugs and guns, he says, but he certainly had played a role. He regrets that now.
But back then the money was never enough, he says. He was never satisfied. He always wanted more.
At times he would try to keep from doing drugs himself because he had to keep his mind and his thoughts clear. And so he turned to food instead, going from a 120-lb kid soaking wet to a 600-lb man. You can imagine the humiliation, he says, when you were subjected to a strip search by the police.
VIOLENCE WAS A WAY OF LIFE
His résumé – not the dishwasher, bouncer and construction worker, but rather the gangster, drug dealer, organized crime boss, white supremacist – had made him into a person that others were afraid of. And yet often he led a paranoid life, always suspecting those around him or being a danger to him or being there to try and take him down.
Living out west he took up residence on a farm, to be away from others. The seclusion was costly.
It was here he nearly lost his life when a group of men – his so-called friends and gang acquaintances – nearly beat him to death. Killing him was their intention and they did leave him for dead with a list of endless injuries. A farmer who witnessed the savage beating took him to a hospital, but they didn’t want to admit him – scared that those who started the job would come to the hospital to finish it.
And so he stashed himself in a hotel instead, where he took a fall and couldn’t get off the floor because of his weight and because many of the bones in his body were broken. Laying on the floor, Roberts said he had lots of thoughts.
“I’d never know the love of family. My friends were all dead or had betrayed me. I didn't know the love of a woman."
He was determined to end it all there. But he also made a pact with someone else. He prayed to God to help him through this. To help him find what had eluded him his entire life – a feeling of love. He felt God with him that day. And it changed his life.
It took 13 months for him to learn how to walk again and we’ve skipped a lot of parts of his story in this story, but he says his life had been hell and he was determined, with the help of his faith and new-found motivation, that he was never going to go back to that hell again.
He even turned to writing – writing books that have gone on to win awards.
And in the years that have followed since he decided to take another direction in life – a better direction – he now speaks to people and teaches people about reconciliation, peace and love, and also finding religion. His website www.michaelbullroberts.ca describes his transformation as going from ‘notorious to glorious.’ Years ago he became a licensed pastor through Global Christian Ministry Forum Canada. He also turned himself in for all the outstanding warrants he had. He visited parts of the world to share his ministry and to learn more about the people he had directed hatred towards. And to make amends.
His message to the young people he is speaking to on this day – it’s never too late to redeem yourself. Better yet, it’s best to never put yourself in that position in the first place.
Both he and an RCMP corporal at the high school warn the kids of the dangers of chemical drugs. Think you’re smoking weed or snorting cocaine? In all likelihood you’re doing meth instead. And now fentanyl is something to be feared. It can so easily kill you. Those who make these drugs dirt cheap don’t care about who they’re hurting, the students are told. They’re driven by greed, not compassion. Roberts says he knows this first-hand.
If you think it’s cool to pick on others, to bully them, to torment them, it’s not, says Roberts. Is that how you would want to be treated? He urges those listening to them to think of the long-lasting harm this causing to others.
Even now in his life, he says, people who treated him horribly when he was young have now asked for his forgiveness.
Better late than never, one supposes.
But think about this, he says.
“I was just a weakling as a kid,” he says. “No one had a clue of the monster they were creating in me.”
Fortunately for Michael Bull Roberts, and for those around him, monsters can go away.
TELLING HIS TALE
Between June 4-8, Michael Bull Roberts spoke to high school students at Millbrook/Indian Brook, Bridgewater, Shelburne, Barrington and Yarmouth. He is a reformed gang member who speaks to youth about bullying, drugs, racism, addictions and gang life/violence. This was a joint initiative with Shelburne County RCMP Street Crime Enforcement Unit, CADPS (Community Aboriginal Diversity Policing Services) and the RCMP Foundation.
Since his presentations in southwestern Nova Scotia Roberts was also awarded with a Southwest Nova District Policing Officer Certificate of Appreciation for his collaboration with the RCMP in sharing his story to help reach out to youth.