I had the honour of chatting with Victor Malarek this week. Victor is a fierce advocate for underrepresented people and the social issues that plague them. I have to admit, I'd heard people refer to his relentless reporting as 'having a wolf on your doorstep' if you were the person he was after (although, if you were his target you probably deserved it 😉). I'd also heard him referred to in quite opposite terms, as 'rambunctious' and 'easy to get along with'. So, was he a teddy bear or a hungry wolf? I had no idea what to expect from this interview and for the first few minutes I was somewhat terrified (and partly star-starstruck). Lucky for me, I had nothing to fear. Victor is among the topmost inspiring people I've met. And, although he sure as hell didn't have to, he was willing to put aside an hour an a half to talk with me because he cares about the social issues I'm writing about.
Throughout Victor Malarek's career as an investigative reporter, he published several books, exposés for The Montreal Star, Globe & Mail, CBC, and CTV. He has also hosted documentaries and news shows on CBC’s The Fifth Estate and CTV’s W5. But what intrigues me most about Victor is his journey from ‘ward of the court’ to investigative reporter superstar.
The purpose of my interview was to gain more understanding about what it meant to age out of the system in the 60s, what (if any) supports were available, and what challenges were involved in choosing a positive path (away from incarceration). As my current book project is about youth protection in the 1980s, and some of my adult characters were themselves in youth protection as teens, I wanted Victor’s input on the challenges he faced on
his path towards aging out of the system and
then advocating for others in need.
Victor described his experience living in “Weredale”, The Boys Home of Montreal, as one filled with abuse and neglect. When asked whether there were supports in place to help kids cope or protect their rights, his answer was a flat “no.” There was the odd teacher or youth protection employee with a heart, he said, but they often didn’t stay long because of the toxic work ethics employed within the orphanage. Forms of corporal punishment included leather-strap beatings that were so vicious they broke the skin and left dark bruises. Other disciplinary measures were more subtle but left a worse scar, like continuous psychological abuse. There was also talk and sightings of sexual harassment and assault, although the victims stayed silent out of fear of repercussion.
Social workers were mostly absent and over-worked. They made very few visits to children at Weredale. Victor described how, years later, a social worker confessed to him that social services knew about the abuses in Weredale, but (horrifically) didn’t investigate as they thought of the reports as ‘rumours’. As children in Weredale had been admitted because of some significant event in their past (mostly due to family troubles) that was out of their control, you can imagine the emotional trauma that was piled on when they were abused in the place they had been put in to keep them ‘safe’, with no one willing to advocate for them.
Most kids don’t fare well in such a situation. Most end up angry, many fight, others rebel in other ways, steal, runaway, hurt themselves, and all are ill-equipped to deal with life after the system. Many end up in jail or on the street. Even when things had improved (i.e. no more corporal punishment) when I was in youth protection in 1990-91, social workers and people who would advocate for children in care were hard to come by. I remember a couple of excellent child care workers in the first shelter I was placed in. Ross and James went out of their way to make kids feel safe and listened to. Ross had been in the system himself as a teen and had chosen his job because he wanted to help system kids succeed. As for my social worker, she was almost completely absent. When I was moved to a group home, the atmosphere was completely different than it had been at the shelter with Ross & James. The childcare workers were burnt-out, they were just showing up for a job. Many kids slipped through the cracks under workers who didn’t fulfill their responsibilities. I was dealing with all sorts of problems and symptoms of PTSD without any psychological counselling, and I barely survived. Luck is how I survived aging out of the system.
Victor describes luck as playing an initial role as he aged-out too. He had been lucky to meet a judge and psychiatrist who cared and offered him a second chance, over sending him to juvenile detention for a crime he’d been involved in. It was at that point that he decided he wanted something else for himself in life. He didn’t want to be stuck in a rut any longer. He wanted to be in control of his life and he wanted to move forwards, rather than be crippled by the past. It’s bloody hard to break free from such emotional trauma and anger, but this amazing guy had the passion to do it and so he did.
As for the continuation of my own story, I will leave that for another post.
To find out more about Victor Malarek’s experience in The Boys Home of Montreal (Weredale House), be sure to read his book Hey, Malarek! It’s available in paperback or ebook (and it's also been made into a movie). I highly recommend it – I couldn’t put it down! It’s a well written inside look at the struggles system kids faced in the 60s.
For those who've read my first published novel, Sky-Bound Misfit, my current novel is about Sam (the first friend Frankie makes at Beats High). While Frankie's story reflects my experiences with gender violence as a young teen, Sam's story reflects my experiences in the system as an older teen. I felt Sam needed a book of her own. The first 6 chapters of Sky-Bound Misfit are available on my blog: https://www.janepowell.org/post/read-chapters-1-6 . I hope to have Sam's story published by 2021.
Check out some of Victor Malarek’s work here:
*Be sure to see the recently released movie Target Number One, which is about Victor Malarek's exposé concerning a drug bust and dirty cops. Josh Hartnett plays Victor Malarek. View trailer here:
Evening with Victor Malarek "My Life's Work: From a Shattered Home to the CBC & Beyond" (Excellent TV interview by CTV’s Sandie Rinaldo with Victor Malarek)
Hey, Malarek! (novel)
Orphanage 41 (novel)
The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade (novel)
Gut Instinct: The Making of an Investigative Journalist (novel)
🐻 Thanks for the great chat, Victor!