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Conference and Seminar Speaker

November 2, 2002 ~ St. Catharines Standard ~ by Eric White

Getting off the roller coaster

As a child, he was ruled by the courts as ‘incorrigible’ and ‘brain damaged.’ He was thrown into a brutal ‘training’ school where he developed razor-sharp survival skills and criminal business technique. By the early ’60s, Serge LeClerc was running two stills and selling the illegal liquor to taverns. At the tender age of 16, his story was just beginning……..

In 1988 Serge LeClerc got to pick his own birthday. He thought 1949 sounded like a good year. It’s the sort of thing you need if you want to get a social insurance number. Because after making millions of dollars in business deals and owning properties all over the continent, he needed the number so he could start making money the government knew about. And maybe find a version of himself he could live with.

And while it may have been a headache, LeClerc couldn’t really blame his mother for not writing it down. “When your mother is 13-14 years old and she’s giving birth to you all by herself in an abandoned building, she isn’t paying attention to details,” he said. Besides, after leaving behind a childhood on the streets of Toronto, a storybook career in organized crime, and decades of substance abuse to become a successful motivational speaker, shuffling his way through government red tape wasn’t much of a challenge. “It doesn’t matter where you start from. It doesn’t matter if you were a product of rape like me, of if you were a street-kid at 12 like me, or you went to prison,” the 53-year-old said, seated at the kitchen table in his pretty Fonthill home. “What matters in life is where you end up. The only person that can make you a loser is you.”

Perseverance certainly seems to be a family trait. After his birth, LeClerc’s Cree mother made her way east to the Cabbagetown district of Toronto, where she worked two dishwashing jobs and lived in a boarding house. She spent every cent she made on her son, and he remembers being one of “the best dressed and best fed kids in the neighborhood.” He said that maternal commitment is “part of the tragedy” of what happened when he was eight. Often taunted as a “half-breed,” LeClerc was eager to gain the acceptance of the other kids and cut class one day to help some older boys break into houses. And the kid with the shortest legs got caught. The juvenile delinquency laws of the time were hard on truancy, but tended to be even harder on kids from single-parent, inner-city homes. LeClerc was ruled “incorrigible,” and became a ward of the state at St. John’s Training School, where he was regularly beaten by teachers and abused by older students.

So he didn’t stick around much. He was constantly escaping from the school and scraping out a living on the streets. One time he lived on the grounds of Casa Loma, collecting pennies from the fountain and stealing from a nearby dairy. Another time, he was living under someone’s porch, and was picked up for stealing a station wagon. “Ten. Yeah, I was 10,” he said, laughing, for a second, like he wasn’t talking about himself. Back at the training school, one of the teachers, whose weapon of choice was a sawed-off goalie stick, took LeClerc aside to teach him another lesson. The boy jammed a pitchfork tine into his belly. The court declared him “brain damaged” and put him in a maximum security school, but that didn’t stop his frequent exits. For the last escape, he distracted the guards by lighting the gymnasium on fire and driving a truck through the fence. This time the court stamped him “irreparably brain damaged” and put him with a foster home.

He was living on the streets at 12, was carrying a straight razor for protection, and was busy finding practical applications for what he learned at training school. “(Crime) is a learned activity and when you put a kid in juvenile custody, you’re putting them in with kids who know different forms of stealing, different forms of dealing drugs and it’s a cycle,” he said. “You go and hang out at the corner, you find out what’s happening, you track people around you, you get involved in a gang, move up in the gang, and if you’ve got a knack for making money, you do all right.”

LeClerc was a natural. Soon he was running two stills and selling liquor to a network of Toronto taverns. At 15, he paid $62,000 cash for his first house. He also lost touch with his mother. Today she still lives in Cabbagetown, but he said it’s “easier on both of us if we have little contact.” The young man’s business smarts were coupled with a fierce mean streak. He figures he spent most of his adolescence with a black eye. By the time he was 16, he had traded his razor for a pistol, and with the early ’60s swirling into the late ’60s, he was about to trade booze for drugs.

“It’s not as easy as some people think,” LeClerc said of drug dealing. “You need to develop the character, you need to develop the contacts, you need to have a market, you need to know what to do with drugs, where to buy them, how to cut them, how to profit.” He made connections all over Toronto, and developed a very lucrative market. But most of the profits went into his own drug habit. One time, he was so strung out on speed that he lost almost of all of his personal assets, and then swore that he would never let his addiction take him to that brink again. “It got so bad I ended up breaking into a house to get to the refrigerator to get some food. That’s how bottomed out I was,” he said.

When he was 19, LeClerc went for his first stay in a maximum security prison, and quickly developed a reputation amongst the career criminals. His web of business connections grew as he did “life on the installment plan,” popping in and out of prison over the next 15 years. Soon he and a partner put together a crew and became major players in the drug trade, with designer drugs being their flagship product. They owned an array of businesses including tanneries and pharmaceutical companies where they could get the chemical ingredients needed for their drug recipes. They made deals with mafia families and motorcycle gangs, employing 70 people and annually grossing $110 million at their height. “You end up having apartments and cars and condos and farms and you really don’t know what you have and really don’t care at that point,” he said. “You’re just in action.”

In 1984, LeClerc was arrested for the last time. The goat farm in southern Quebec that his crew converted into a $40 million drug laboratory was busted by the RCMP. When the bars closed behind him, he was still committed to a life of crime. But realizing he was financially wiped out, that he had spent 17 of his 35 years in prison, and listening to a 19-year-old hang himself on a chain in the next cell, made him “a little open” to the dedicated volunteers in the prison ministry “saying there’s a better way to live your life.” “The reality of becoming a Christian and having a change in value and ethics allows you to feel good about yourself, your creation, your worth,” he said. “It gives you a way to view the world. And it gives you a perspective on what you’re doing with your life and it gives you a perspective of you.”

From that foundation, LeClerc shed his drug habit and started taking correspondence classes, beginning with Grade 5. He said he was interested in social work and criminology, so he could “understand” himself and that took him to the University of Waterloo, where he graduated with a honours degree in sociology in 1995. While in Kitchener, he spent most of his spare time working with troubled and drug addicted youth, and helped establish a drop-in centre for street kids. He also started getting requests for speaking engagements, with audiences being drawn to his inspirational story and straightforward style. “I don’t live in grey areas, I take very strong stances. It’s a very strong moral challenge I give.”

Eight years ago, he got a job as a counsellor at a Niagara private school, and moved to the area with his wife and stepson. In 2000, his dramatic turnaround and devotion to troubled youth was recognized when the federal government granted him a full national pardon, unprecedented for someone with his record. He’s recently returned to full-time speaking, and travels to all corners of the country giving motivational and leadership talks to businesspeople, targeted talks to police officers, educators and high school students about the realities facing them with regard to drugs, alcohol, bullying and violence as well as to church congregations with a Christian challenge. One such a event he’s been working on is a Christian youth rally being held Nov. 16 at Welland Centennial High School, with games, giveaways and several speeches from LeClerc.

He’s also quite excited about a video being produced by New Life Prison Ministries that will tell his story to inmates across the country. Most of the prisoners won’t have the symbolic luxury of choosing their own birthday, but they can choose rebirth, he said “No matter how tough you are or no matter how bad you’ve been or what you’ve done with your criminal activities, there’s a piece of you that feels quite hopeful,” LeClerc said, as his wife made sandwiches behind him. “And you look around and you see people who can laugh and smile and have families and live in normal homes and work and you’re kind of looking at yourself in prison, doing drugs and everything else, and you really hunger for that.”