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Been There, Done That

By Joe Barkovich

Been there, done that.

Serge LeClerc, head of counseling services at Robert Land Academy can say
that about his life. Sought after as a speaker on issues like teen peer pressure,street life, media manipulation, and delinquent and criminal lifestyles, LeClerc
isn’t one to keep his checkered past in the background, under wraps.

It gives him acceptance, he says, when talking to audiences like high
school students, young offenders and street kids.

He can lay claim to credibility with listeners because he’s a graduate of
two very different school systems.

First was the school of hard knocks.

LeClerc came into the world born in an abandoned building, the son of a
14-year-old Cree girl who had been raped.

By age eight he was in training school and upon release four years later, lived
the life of a full-time street kid and gang member. He grew up in tough Toronto
neighborhoods, Cabbagetown and Regent Park.

“I quit school in Grade 5. I never met anybody who went to high school,” he
says.

Starting with his first incarceration, he spent 21 years over a 30-year period in
his life in one correctional facility or another. He made his way up the
ladder of organized crime, was a drug dealer and addict himself.

In the 1980s however he realized he had to turn his life around. It meant
re-starting his formal education, while in prison, at Grade 5 level in 1985
and sticking with it over the years until graduating on the honors list in
1991 with a degree in sociology from the University of Waterloo. He earned
his honors degree in sociology/social work four years later.

He also overcame his 20-year drug dependency and has been drug and alcohol
free since 1986.

His resume says he was released from prison “for the final time” in 1988.

LeClerc is a motivational speaker for groups like Crime Stoppers
International and the Robert Land Academy. He has worked in or with drug
and alcohol rehabilitation services, youth homes, drop in centers and
crisis pregnancy centers among others.

In February 2000 he received a rare full pardon from the federal government
in recognition of his achievements.

He can boast about speaking “from coast to coast to coast” on issues of social
concern.

He recently returned from a one-week visit to Nunavut, where he’d been
invited to talk to teens, community leaders and health officials about peer
pressure, substance abuse, depression and teen suicide.

He readily agreed to an interview for the newspaper’s Tough Teen series. In the
living room of his Pelham home, we talked about what it’s like being a teenager
today.


Teens are under intense pressure, LeClerc says, from a wide-ranging list
socio-cultural influences. Music industry icons, many with negative impact,
are at
or near the top of his list. Lyrics, video games, even some teen-oriented
television stations and productions, manipulation by media and high-powered
advertising can be more influential to some teens, not all but some, than
traditional role models like parents, school and churches, says LeClerc.

For example, research tells him that many of the music videos that air on
teen stations like MTV and Much Music have explicit content about violence
towards women.

Messages such as this contribute to desensitization for some listeners or
viewers, he believes.

He says every university study that’s been done on the desensitization
process of violence is unanimous – “there’s no question that it’s a
reality and it’s a fact.
And the only people debating it are the people who make money from it.”


“I don’t know if teens are any tougher than when I grew up in the 1950s in the
inner city” says LeClerc, a former Golden Gloves boxer. “But when we take
a look at the reality of this generation, this generation has become more
physically aggressive, more desensitized to the feelings of others.”

Not to be ignored, he says, is the Young Offenders Act and its “subversive
effect” over parental authority and responsibility over a long-range
period.

Though it is soon to be replaced, LeClerc says it will be difficult to undo
what the legislation has done to Canadian society: “They (the federal government) swung
the pendulum from the right to the left. They gave a 12-year-old child full adult
rights. We forgot they were children and needed protection under the
law…we said to parents, you can’t control your children any more.”

He fears the replacement legislation will be flawed as well.

It will provide tougher penalties, but LeClerc doubts that incarceration
will provide the needed answers.

” The government is not going to get it right again. They’re trying to make
it tougher, what are they going to do throw a 16-year-old kid in the pen?
I’ve been there. It doesn’t work.”

He says rehabilitation and recidivism in Canada “are abysmal.”

He says there is a “63 per cent failure rate in the juvenile system: “We
fail 63 times out of 100. They go back in, and the adult system is worse.”

Canada needs to learn more from non-adversarial systems that are in place
in countries like the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden and Switzerland,
he suggests.


LeClerc can be hardnosed in his assessments and opinions but that is not to say
he isn’t without praise.

“We have the finest generation of young people ever created. Genetically
and biologically they’re bigger and stronger. They’re more sophisticated.
They’re more socially conscious, more aware of political issues, environment
issues, child poverty, child labour. So we’re talking about a real fine generation.”

But teens are subjected to a battery of mixed messages by the media, says
LeClerc. One of them is alcohol advertising.

It’s advertised to no end, says LeClerc, “yet alcohol is the number one
killer, the number one causal link to teenage death in our country. Binge drinking has
doubled three times in the last 10 years, binge drinking is now labelled an
official way to die in our country for the first time. It’s the number one
causal link to teenage violence and to family violence. . . We don’t allow cigarette
advertising on TV but we allow them to put a poison that is our number one
social problem and number one killer of our children. We tell our kids
they’ll be more popular and they’ll have more fun if they drink alcohol. No
other generation has had this done to them before, this exploitation.”

Changes in family social structure and lifestyle can’t be overlooked
because they also have impact on childrens’ lives, says LeClerc.

Decades ago the term ” latch-key children” applied to children from poor
or low incomes families where a single parent or both parents worked and weren’t
home when the kids arrived from school. More recently though it has crossed
social strata and now applies to children from many middle class families.

“You have families where both parents are working, who don’t get home til 6:30
or 7 at night because they’re communting, they’re working two jobs and they
have kids at home from three to five or six or seven and we know that the
peak hours of juvenile crime, juvenile violence according to the latest
study in the U.S. are between 5 and 7.”

And that’s no coincidence, he says.


LeClerc sees growing need to, as he calls it, “challenge young people to their
fineness.”

There’s evidence that this is being done in the United States in the
aftermath of September 11 events, but no so such similar movement in Canada, he says.
The impetus in the U.S. comes from President George Bush and his belief in
a return to family values, says LeClerc.

Positive reinforcement can work wonders with teens, he believes.

“If we motivate them, if we tell them we care about them, if we believe in
them, if we put things into place to allow them to do service, to give back, to feel
ownership and to feel good about themselves, they’ll respond to that.”

What does he tell kids at assemblies in their high schools or public meetings?

He says his message is about excellence because it’s something young
people need to hear.

“You don’t have to believe in any particular denomination to get a child to
understand they’re a creation, they have a spirit, they have a soul, they
are of worth,” he says.

“I tell them just that – your life is filled with choices but you don’t
have the choice to be excellent, you’re born that way. The secret of life is that you can never
make a choice that will make you the best because you already are. The
secret of life is to not make choices that stop you from being the best,
choices that stop you from being excellent.