It’s about 6 a.m. in British Columbia and Andy Bhatti is picking his way through the B.C. wilderness to a sockeye salmon river while he speaks with The Telegram on his cellphone.
“One second. I’m just climbing down a mountain,” he says.
It’s not at all of a stretch to imagine that this time 10 years ago, Bhatti may have been just tightening a strap around his arm to shoot heroin. Or just finished pulling off a robbery. Or even pounding somebody into a bloody pulp who he knew was abusive to children or women. He still would have been in B.C. but it’s hard to imagine a different setting than that of East Hastings Street, where he lived for years, compared to the salmon pools where he’s about to emerge.
Between the ages of eight and 14, Bhatti was sexually abused by a man named Joseph Douglas Baker who was his big brother through a Big Brothers association.
Bhatti was 27 before he got any help.
“I reacted by stealing and doing crime,” Bhatti says.
And doing drugs. He was smoking weed at 11 and snorting cocaine by age 13.
“By the time I was 15 I was a full blown heroin addict doing $800 of heroin a day.”
As a teenager, he became too much to handle and he was sent from his mother’s home to live in foster care. When he ran away from those places too, a judge actually ordered Baker, his abuser, to take care of Bhatti. But nobody knew Baker was at the heart of what was erupting in Bhatti. The teen ran away from Baker’s home, too.
Between the ages of 12 and 26, Bhatti spent eight years in jail. At 20, selling drugs just wasn’t an option for him anymore to keep his drug habit going.
“It got super bad,” he says. “My drug habit just took a bad turn. You can’t do like $1,000 worth of drugs a day, right?”
So Bhatti got heavier into crime. That led to despair and homelessness.
“I ended up on downtown east side of Vancouver Hastings Street. That is the worst place in Canada,” he says.
From about 2000 to 2006 that was where he lived.
“Living in hotels. Living in cockroach-infested places and ending up on the street with nowhere to go. I’d sleep in stolen cars. I’d hang out with other criminals like myself. I racked up 60 charges in five years for robbery, theft, possession of heroin.”
But even in jail, Bhatti wouldn’t speak up about what had triggered all this in him.
“They always ask you in jail, right, ‘have you ever been abused as a child?’ There’s a psychologist. I never wanted to tell anybody because I thought it would be weak.”
In jail for robbery, trafficking and aggravated assault, Bhatti didn’t want other inmates to find out he had been abused for fear he would be considered weak.
“I wasn’t weak. I was just a child without a voice. And (I) didn’t have anybody to talk to,” he says.
Eight years ago this Sept. 27, Bhatti got clean from drugs. When he finally made that step, he started to speak to someone about what had happened to him all those years ago. One day he got a call from the police asking if he knew a man named Joseph Douglas Baker. Baker was up on other sexual assault charges and Bhatti decided the time was right for him to tell the police his stories.
Bhatti also sought out male support groups where he could meet people who had been through something similar. He had to go to Ontario to find them, but the experience there taught him how to raise awareness and money to help people in situations similar to the one he was once in. Back in B.C., he took his story to the streets and started combining it with charity events to raise money for support groups. His first endeavour was a charity poker game that brought together a pile of celebrities. In the past year alone, Bhatti has raised $25,000 for Sophie’s Place — the only child advocacy centre in B.C. for victims of sexual and child abuse. The centre is named for the facility’s patron, Sophie Tweed-Simmons, daughter of Shannon Tweed and Gene Simmons.
Six months ago, he did a charity and awareness pub night in Whistler where he found out his own abuser was living. Bhatti discovered Baker was out of prison and back working with children, his history unknown to the people there.
Bhatti recently heard from a single mother from this province whose son was sexually abused while in the care of the local Big Brothers Association. That was one year ago. The women’s son is now 14 and Bhatti says he’s honoured to come to this province with the message that people such as Bhatti — people like the single mother’s son — are not alone. On Aug. 16, Bhatti will host a charity pub night at Trapper John’s. On Aug. 21, there will be a free paintball and laser-tag event for kids.
Bhatti doesn’t just carry his history as credentials. He’s now a certified sexual abuse prevention facilitator and will soon be a certified interventionist. He has full custody of his own child.
“My life is great,” he says, still making his way to the river to wet a line. “Life’s amazing, right?”
At 35, Bhatti is hardly running from his past, but using it as a way to help others. When he sends out a media package on an event he’s planning, he includes a string of mugshots from his past life that were taken between the ages of 21 and 26.
“I look 50 in those pictures,” he says.
He says he knows many people who are struggling to find their way out of the life he was once trapped in. Even worse, are those who are no longer fighting for survival. At the salmon pools, there’s the opportunity to reflect on who he was and who he has become.
“It gives me peace and quiet and time. (It) helps me reflect on my life and remind myself where I came from and I’m very grateful I’m not dead. Because hundreds of my friends are doing 25 to life in jail or they’re overdosed or they’re dead or they hung themselves, right? Or they’re still lost in addiction and they can’t get out.”