John Dorion, living Manitoba ‘ghost’: Where there’s life, there’s hope?

“I can’t understand why you do what you do. Especially when I hear what happens to you when you do it.” Manitoba Judge Carena Roller

A couple of weeks back, the Winnipeg Free Press published a longer feature I’d done for them, examining the sad life and astonishing, yet low-key entrenched, criminal history of John Calvin Dorion.

(Winnipeg's Old Law Courts Building)

(Winnipeg’s Old Law Courts Building)

Dorion, as the long-form article on chronic offenders describes, was essentially ‘sentenced at birth’ to a life of chronic solvent addiction and poverty along with debilitating illness and injury.

The 40-year-old truly is, as retired judge Ray Wyant aptly described him, “a poor soul.”

But setting sympathy for him aside, Dorion is also one of Manitoba’s most frequent flyers in terms of the jail time he’s served over the past two decades.

Locking this one man up has cost taxpayers a small and still growing fortune.

And other than freeing the streets of his intoxicated nuisance for a few months at a time by jailing him, there’s little else that can be said about the financial ‘investment’ Manitobans and their justice system have made in Dorion thus far.

When I finished researching the piece on Dorion in mid-August he was pending sentencing yet again. There was a plan in place, however, to get him out of Winnipeg to take up life on the El’Dad Ranch in a remote area near Steinbach.

The ranch hosts an alternative justice program, described as “a safe environment for men with intellectual disabilities and involvement with the criminal justice system to learn life skills, experience a community built on positive values and to build positive relationships, with the aim of providing a therapeutic alternative to prison.”

In addition to this (and on-site counseling and addictions treatment), Dorion’s also able to take part in a day program to build skills: chopping wood, caring for animals.

That plan came to fruition Aug. 19.

Funding from the Provincial Special Needs Program (PSNP) was (and is, for now at least) paying the bill.

It bears mentioning that PSNP has had Dorion on their “active” case roster since February 2012, but his offending hasn’t halted.

Leg pain led to urge to huff, defence lawyer says

When time came to freshen up the reporting in advance of publication a few weeks back, it came as absolutely zero surprise that Dorion — despite going to live scores of kilometers outside of the city — was already back in custody charged with breaching a stay-away order from his beloved gas-huffing haunt: the U-Haul lot on McPhillips Street.

He’d come into the city with a worker to see a movie on Sept. 28 and quickly absconded under the guise of going to get a soda.

This led to him being rearrested and returned to the familiar drab confines of the Winnipeg Remand Centre, where it costs Manitobans $196 per day to hold him, if not more, given his medical needs and cognitive impairments.

Why he says he left the theatre? According to his lawyer, the pain in his legs from his prostheses (he lost both limbs to frostbite a few years back after passing out in the snow) drove him to want to get high. So he wandered many blocks to the U-Haul, as he’s done countless times before.

Nevertheless, those 36 days spent as a so-called free man at the El’Dad Ranch was the longest period of time Dorion’s spent away from jail in more than four years.

A week ago today, Dorion was again sentenced, bringing his official tally of criminal convictions to over 100 since 1991.

The hearing, in front of no-nonsense provincial court Judge Carena Roller, went as routinely as virtually all of Dorion’s sentencings have over the last seven years.

His massive record of convictions and IPDAs was filed for Roller to scrutinize.

Roller was ultimately asked to acquiesce to the latest plan for Dorion, to note his 52 days of custody and return him to El’Dad with tightened up conditions aimed at keeping him in check.

Roller agreed, and endorsed a new clause in a new 15-month-long probation order effectively banishing Dorion from Winnipeg without being accompanied by a worker. He also needs prior written consent from his probation officer to come here.

“I can’t understand why you do what you do. Especially when I hear what happens to you when you do it,” Roller told Dorion, who appears to have gained a considerable pot-belly since the last I saw him earlier this year.

He gazed towards her, impassively.

“Do you like being there (El’Dad) … better than going to U-Haul?,” she asked Dorion.

“Yeah,” he replied.

‘Yeah, but do you, John — do you really?,’ I thought to myself in the back of courtroom 401.

Because this is the key question, really.

‘Exhibited maturity’

Given Dorion’s storied history, it would be natural to want to take anything Dorion says with a grain of salt, to believe he’s just a hopeless case — a living ‘ghost in the machine’ — we’ll just always continue to throw money at.

But a letter his PSNP provided to the court suggests there is, in fact, some cautious optimism for the future of John Dorion, whose ultimate goal is to hopefully one day return to his home community of Crane River.

In the month Dorion spent free at El’Dad he “engaged very well with his supports (and) participated well in his vocational day program,” PSNP worker,Melanie Muehling wrote in a Nov. 14 joint letter to community prosecutor Paul Girdlestone and defence lawyer Amanda Sansregret.

Perhaps most surprising to me of her findings was how she says Dorion “exhibited maturity” through “recognizing the benefit of his placement and his choice to remain clean and sober.”

His PSNP worker believes these things, combined with the fact Dorion been out of jail for more than a month, “is a huge success, and indicative of a working plan.”

Maybe, just maybe, Dorion’s El’Dad plan will work out. His worker seems to think it could. Keep him away from his central temptations — the sniff and the U-Haul —for long enough and it’s possible something might stick.

It’s the possibility Dorion would be actually a free man instead of just one in stasis due to the fact he’s geographically too far removed from his vice to feed it.

“It is my opinion that Mr Dorion does not have the intellectual or emotional ability to deal with stress and anxiety by problem-solving an alternative response to attending U-Haul and using solvents,” Muehling wrote.

But that’s not to say he doesn’t have some insight into the power of his addiction, Muehling suggests.

“Mr. Dorion has confirmed to me that he knows that if he is residing in Winnipeg, he will ultimately succumb to the temptation to attend U-Haul. Our program has introduced a solution (the El’Dad ranch) that would see Mr. Dorion physically removed from this temptation, and provide external motivation for Mr. Dorion to abstain from solvent use,” she states.

I can only hope this is the case.

But, one wonders, why did it take so very long for this relatively simple solution — court-sanctioned displacement — to rear its head?

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