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Doug Knockwood, 88, survived rough early life to become a Mi’kmaq elder who helped people beat addictions

Having overcome racism, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and skid row to become a respected elder and addictions counsellor, Doug Knockwood used Mi’kmaq spiritual teachings and his own personal experience to help people across Canada beat their addictions.

“Doug loved life. Because of the dark roads he travelled, he knew he could support and help others who travelled those same roads,” said Donald Julien, his friend and executive director of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq. “His gentle nature and that love of family allowed him to touch people in a way that few others could.”

Doug Knockwood.

Lorna Lillo Photography

Mr. Knockwood died on June 16 at the age of 88 at the Colchester East Hants HealthCentre in Truro, N.S., less than one month after realizing his dream of publishing his memoirs. He suffered from pneumonia and heart failure.

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In late May, more than 150 people joined him at the addictions-treatment centre at Sipekne’katik First Nation (Indian Brook), to eat moose stew and to congratulate him on the book he co-authored, Doug Knockwood, Mi’kmaw Elder: Stories, Memories, Reflections.

“He was the happiest man on Earth,” Errol Sharpe, a publisher at Fernwood Publishing, the book’s publisher, said of the launch.

For years, Mr. Sharpe encouraged his friend to write a book detailing an incredible life marked by resilience and empathy. Initially, Mr. Knockwood wanted a book about his grandfather Sam Knockwood, a man he deeply loved. But in 2014, he agreed to sit down with Mr. Sharpe at his kitchen table in Indian Brook and record his life story. His memories, along with those of people who knew him, are compiled into the 145-page book.

Freeman Douglas Knockwood was born on Dec. 11, 1929, in the coal-mining town of Springhill, N.S. His father, Freeman Bernard, worked in the nearby lumber woods while his mother, Ann Mary, raised Doug and his siblings speaking only Mi’kmaq in a house overlooking Newville Lake, in a small village north of Parrsboro. As a young boy, he spent as much time as he could across the road with his grandfather Sam, who was blind and played the harmonica. Mr. Knockwood’s happy childhood ended abruptly at the age of 5. One day, the RCMP arrived unannounced at his house to take him to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. His brother Ralph was already there.

“For the next year and a half I was a prisoner. I experienced a lot of abuse both physical and sexual. I couldn’t speak a word of English,” he wrote in his memoirs.

In 1936, Mr. Knockwood and his brother returned home for good after their father went to court to fight to get them out of the school.

“The stay at the residential school was a living hell. I lived that hell for half of my lifetime, long after I left. I am not proud of that half of my life. After residential school the hurt and the anger did not subside until my mid-life,” he said in his memoirs.

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Mr. Knockwood continued his schooling near his home, but by 11 he was working on farms and as a labourer. In 1948, he joined the North Nova First Highland Battalion and three years later joined the 27th Canadian Infantry Brigade. In 1952, he went to Germany. He returned to Canada the following year and not long after was diagnosed with tuberculosis. During his treatment, one lung and several ribs were removed.

Suffering and certain he was near death, he began drinking more. After years of living on the streets, in and out of jail and scrounging money to buy alcohol, often rubbing alcohol, to drink, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He got jobs working as a short-order cook and in 1964 decided to go to Boston. He became a cook there, went through a treatment program and got sober. Realizing he had a gift to help people, he volunteered at prisons and rehab centres in Boston, gaining knowledge that he would bring back to Nova Scotia.

“One of the things I think I had going for me is having a vested interest. I understood where they were coming from, what was happening to them, and how to go about, not easing all the pain, but giving them a foothold in understanding where they are and where they’re coming from,” he said in his memoirs.

In 1970, he co-founded an alcohol and drug treatment program for Mi’kmaq people in Nova Scotia and travelled the province implementing programs.

“He was a natural teacher,” Mr. Sharpe said. “He also had the experience. It wasn’t theory for him. It was reality. He knew what had to be done to bring people back from the brink. He had great empathy for people.”

He later worked in Quebec and for several years in the Northwest Territories and Edmonton in addiction services. In 1989, he returned to Nova Scotia and continued his work as an addiction counsellor.

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“One of the first things Doug would do when people asked for his help would be to recite the Serenity Prayer. He would go back to that prayer, time and time again,” Mr. Julien said.

In the 1990s, when the northern community of Davis Inlet was in crisis dealing with suicides, and children sniffing gas, Mr. Knockwood was asked to travel there to work with the elders to give them strength and hope.

Later in his life, he was frequently asked to offer a blessing at events, often for the Canadian Forces. His prayers were spontaneous and adapted for each situation. When asked once if he had a prayer written down, he said, “It is written in my head.”

In 2015, he received an honourary doctorate from Acadia University and the following year he was admitted to the Order of Nova Scotia. Last February, he celebrated 54 years of being sober.

“I never thought that I would ever accomplish, you know, the things that I’ve accomplished. And this, I guess, is the top of the cake,” he said on receiving Nova Scotia’s highest honour.

Mr. Knockwood leaves his wife, Michelle; his children, Bernie, Carol Ann, Allan, Joey Morris, Bert, Glenn; stepchildren Lucille, Gilles; and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. His first wife, Bertha, his second wife, Kathy, daughter Mae Ann and siblings Peter, Ralph, and Evie died before him.

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