Ex-Drug Dealer Cleaning Up Abbotsford—On His Terms

Looking back, you could say that Barry Shantz’s career as a big-time dope dealer began with a car accident. He’d dropped out of 10th grade in Kitchener, Ontario, and came to Vancouver in June 1974, celebrating his 18th birthday on Kits Beach with friends from back home. Then he headed up to Stewart, B.C., where his uncle landed him a job in a mine. His fingertip got crushed, and he returned to Vancouver for treatment. One night, as a friend was driving him home from a party, they had a head-on crash.

Shantz had always sold small amounts of pot to get better deals for himself, but now—with a full leg cast and three broken lumbar vertebrae—he started handling more. He loved the excitement. Europeans would show up with stuff for him to unload. The dining room table in his East Vancouver basement suite became a smorgasbord of weed, hash, mushrooms, LSD, and mescaline. Taped to the leg was a torch for hot-knifing.

One day his supplier told him “the man” wanted to talk. The man turned out to be Terry McNeil, an old friend from Kitchener. “You’re dealing half my load,” McNeil told him, and suggested they work together. McNeil had an unlimited supply of Colombian weed, but Shantz had an issue with his hard drug use: the injectables business was too violent, and Shantz wouldn’t deal them. The two worked it out, combining their connections. Shantz modified the gas tanks of his pickup, lowered the ceiling of a camper, and started moving bales of weed and bricks of hash.

Over five years the pair built up legitimate businesses: Laundromats, dry cleaners, a plant store. After McNeil died in a boating accident, Shantz grew bolder. He was now being fronted millions in dope; he’d fly to cities in the Eastern U.S., buy a pickup, and drive a load back to a stash house in Seattle. A whole convoy of vehicles travelled at intervals, and because of his mechanical skills the group liked Shantz to leave last. Once, in the mid 1980s, he managed to fly to Florida, drive up to Seattle, fly back down, and drive a second load to Seattle, still arriving before the first driver of his convoy, who was waiting out the snowstorm.

A Vancouver businessman Shantz had met through McNeil offered him a job that required a tractor-trailer. Shantz bought one, got his licence, and went to work for Doman Industries. To his family and friends he was a long-haul truck driver, but inside the screwed-together stacks of lumber were plastic-wrapped bricks of Afghani hashish. Shantz would put four trucks and a forklift on a barge and take them by tug to an anchored ship. There he’d load up the dope, barge the trucks back, and then distribute the stuff across Canada. He was making millions.

In 1991, near San Francisco, he and his boss were waiting for a 70-tonne shipment of hashish from Afghanistan, listening to radio updates from the ship called the Lucky Star. It was offloading to a fishing vessel that happened to be full of FBI agents. After unloading the first two tonnes, the Lucky Star’s captain got suspicious and fled. (He was later arrested.) Two months later, Shantz was sent down to witness the transfer of the two tonnes of hash. He knew there might be trouble, but they needed the flow. He was arrested at a resort area outside San Francisco. The FBI called it the largest hash bust in U.S. history, with a street value of $1.3 billion. Some of the charges Shantz faced—including conspiracy to import hashish and money laundering—carried life sentences.

By the time I meet him, Shantz is 55. He has a wide forehead, big intense olive eyes, white hair, and a white beard, which, depending on its length, can make him look like a Mennonite farmer or a biker. Both pictures have elements of truth. His father, Abram, left the horse-and-buggy-driving Old Orders in Wallenstein, Ontario, at 16, and Shantz still speaks reverently about the rituals in the old white churches he visited as a child. He also had loose connections with the Hell’s Angels during his years dealing drugs. He laughs a lot, finding absurd humour in his prison experiences.

After his arrest, he served three years in pre-trial custody in Pleasanton, California. He spent his days in the law library and had long discussions with the legal beagles. In 1993 he pled guilty to some of the charges, got others dropped, and was sentenced to 15 years.

In the first month, someone offered him a Valium. He took it, got tested, and was sent to the hole for 20 days—locked down with one cellmate, allowed out three times a week for showers and to an exercise cell. After serving several longer terms there, he quit smoking dope, but the guards would find other reasons to send him down. Later he spent six consecutive months for organizing a work strike, an offence for which he was later cleared. “As quick as possible I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to be incarcerated for a long time. Feeding into the negativity will consume you. So I eliminated the word ‘boredom’ from my vocabulary. If anybody walked into my cell and said, ‘Oh shit am I ever bored,’ I’d say, ‘I am not your recreation! If you haven’t got something to bring to the table, get the hell out of here!’ ”

He ran, worked, and read: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor. Shantz’s diaries each begin with a mosaic of typewritten notes covered with clear tape: weekly mileage graphs, definition of “ad hominem,” the nutritional content of flax seeds. Here’s Nietzsche: “Generally speaking, punishment makes men hard and cold; it sharpens the feeling of alienation, it strengthens the power of resistance—it either destroys the vital energy, or enhances it.”

Jail did both for him. Once, in the hole, he woke to hear a guard yelling, “Pick him up!” Someone was hanging himself, and the guard couldn’t go into the cell because he was alone. Another prisoner started yelling at the cellmate, “Don’t you touch him!” Others joined in; so did Shantz. It was entertainment. Later he was ashamed. The next vulnerable person he saw was a straitlaced Canadian sent to the hole when someone else’s weapon was found in his cell. Shantz asked to be put with him. “I said to him, ‘You didn’t do nothin’ wrong. So you got to crawl your way up. These guys aren’t worth hurting your body.’ And within a day, we were laughing and kicking back and he’s thanking me. It was my trying to undo what I did with the other guy.”

He started helping others navigate the system, accessing medication and giving legal advice. He did it to stay on the right side of different gangs but found he enjoyed it. He was amazed  at the power of the freedom-of-information laws; loved filing grievances, FOI requests, and lawsuits.

Shantz especially looked forward to visits from his Canadian lawyer. John Conroy was born in Montreal, grew up in South Africa, returned to B.C. as a teenager, and studied law at UBC. Many of his early cases involved marijuana possession. Having seen Africans freely smoking “dagga” to no ill effect he didn’t understand why people in Canada were going to jail for it. Working in B.C.’s first community law office, in Abbotsford, he started doing more work for prisoners. In 1977 he drew attention to prison conditions when he defended the hostage takers in the Mary Steinhauser case at the B.C. Penitentiary.

Conroy believed that prisoners had a better chance of reformation and rehabilitation if they served their U.S. time in Canada, close to the supports in the community where they would be released. He tried unsuccessfully to get Shantz transferred back. He chaired a Canadian Bar Association committee on imprisonment and release, and Shantz wrote a report over a 10-year period of the international treaty transfer program. Conroy was impressed by how well Shantz was using the law: he was actually negotiating fresh fruit and vegetables for himself. “If he’s able to do that in the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Conroy figured, “he’s got something going for him.” He offered Shantz a job on his release. “Hang in there,” Conroy kept telling him.

In November 2004, Shantz was deported at the border near Kingston, Ontario. He’d served 13 years, two months, and one day in 11 different prisons. He walked into a convenience store and was so overwhelmed by the welter of colours and bags and prices that he started shaking. He had no idea how to act.

At John Conroy’s office, Shantz’s first assignment was to oversee the renovation of the building, an unremarkable two-storey structure on the edge of downtown Abbotsford. Conroy had bought the adjacent building, a former crack shack. When Shantz came to work early to meet construction workers, he’d have to wake people blocking the doorways. They had shopping carts of stuff, baseball bats hidden above the air conditioner. Crack heads were propped up against the walls; working girls loitered on the corner.

Shantz’s first advice to Conroy: “It’s a turf war. We need to help them understand that this is yours.”

One morning, Shantz was arguing with a police officer in front of the building. When they finished an articling student, Katrina Pacey, who was working for Conroy, pulled him aside. She impressed him with the rhetorical skill she would use in 2012 to challenge Canada’s prostitution laws in the Supreme Court. “Barry,” she said, “you’re part of the problem, not the solution.”

So he went back to Conroy: “Katrina says that displacement is the worst thing you can do to these people.”

Conroy nodded. “You better make it right.”

Pacey encouraged him to learn about homelessness, sex workers’ rights, drug addiction. He started bringing bottled water, cigarettes, and granola bars. A little compassion, he found, went a long way. Now he could ask people to move around the corner during office hours.

One day he watched a woman kneeling in the alley. She was drawing up drainwater, mixing it with heroin, and plunging it into her veins. He’d begun attending meetings of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and he started bringing back to Abbotsford kits that included plastic-wrapped needles and vials of distilled water. The addicts were grateful that Shantz was driving around to hand out the kits, even though mobile needle distribution was prohibited in the city.

His own health needed attention as well. His prison experience had marked him. Soon after his release, he boarded up the door and windows of his house, thinking the whole city of Surrey was after him. He was confrontational around police. He’d go hard at work, then get panicked and angry. Conroy recognized post-traumatic stress and encouraged him to get help, and he continues to seek mental-health care.

He swears that Conroy saved his life. After he got out, his old boss asked him to help with a deal, but Shantz said no because of this job. Within a year, the boss was arrested in Spain with a shipment of cocaine.

Welcome to the murder capital of Canada!” Shantz bellowed into the mike in the courtyard of Abbotsford City Hall. He loves opening like that, aggravating anyone who doesn’t see things his way. A photographer scurried past the flower box behind him. “How about ‘Disease capital of Canada’? Do we want that one, too?” It was May 18, 2010, the eve of World Hepatitis Day. Shantz looked out over the hundred-odd people gathered: an Aboriginal woman infected through a blood transfusion, a man in an orange construction vest smoking, a pensioner in a wheelchair. He told them how happy he was to see them. “We’ve got change coming,” he promised. “It’s gonna take time, but we’re going to keep our voice loud enough so that they hear us up there!” Shantz has become, in Katrina Pacey’s words, “an army unto himself”: distributing and collecting needles, sitting on committees, connecting with addicts.

The crowd cheered. They were a busload of Downtown Eastside supporters and members of the Abbotsford chapter of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, which Shantz founded. Other than daily marijuana, he’s left his own drug use behind, because he’s put off by today’s unsafe production methods. His advocacy work began because of his loyalty to Conroy; fighting for proper health care and housing is a more difficult way of “cleaning up the street.” But he identifies with this motley pack and enjoys waging war against the system like he did in prison.

The group was angry about a bylaw barring the Fraser Health Authority from running harm-reduction programs like methadone clinics, safe injection sites, and needle exchanges—Abbotsford’s then-mayor, Mary Reeves, and council felt that giving needles to addicts encouraged bad habits.

Joining him at the rally was infectious disease specialist Dr. John Farley, who pointed out that Abbotsford has the province’s third-highest rate of hepatitis C infection. Ann Livingston, a long-time advocate from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said that a large body of academic studies shows that far from increasing drug use, needle exchanges effectively slow the spread of disease. “This is supposed to be a caring community,” said Deb Schmitz, executive director of the Pacific Hepatitis C Network. “What happened?”

Shantz led a small group inside City Hall carrying thousands of needles, in buckets, coffee tins, double Ziploc bags, peanut butter jars. Looking around his apartment that morning, he’d grabbed a vase of yellow irises from his garden and dropped the last needles among the green stems. The group took the elevator to the bylaw enforcement office, followed by a handful of Abbotsford police officers, and dumped their load on the desk.

“We’ve got some needles,” announced Dave Murray, the small bookish researcher from VANDU. “We picked them up around the community and we’d like your help because we don’t know where to put them.”

“How about I find out for you and let you know?” said the bewildered clerk.

“How about we leave them here,” said Shantz.

“Oh, just a second,” said Murray. “I need some needles.”

“I have some!” said a woman, taking a handful from her backpack.

“Hey!” said Shantz. “I’d like to lodge a complaint. They’re exchanging needles in City Hall! Is anybody going to enforce the bylaw?”

Schmitz first met Shantz when she spoke at a conference on hepatitis. He kept phoning her to get involved in Abbotsford. She calls him “a force of nature,” and she knows that he rubs people the wrong way. As a pioneer he was adept at bringing people to the table, but as more groups got involved, he risked alienating people with angry outbursts about strategies and alliances.

Days later, then-mayor George Peary conceded that it was time to review the bylaw. The city announced its first step—exactly what Shantz expected: “a bullshit consultation process engaging the entire community.” The drug users said no, they wanted a more meaningful process. A mediator helped get $10,000 in funding from Fraser Health and the Pacific Hepatitis C Network. With help from the experts at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV, the Centre for Disease Control, and UBC, they produced a report on the need for harm reduction. A needle exchange plan from the Fraser Health Authority, presented to council in May 2012, followed. It was not met favourably. Current mayor Bruce Banman warned that this was opening “Pandora’s box,” and council agreed on another consultation process.

Forty members of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors association return from a break and joggle around a table in a room at Abbotsford Community Services. They have the energy of crows setting off from power lines. Many have just returned from a rally in Surrey where they protested a new, privately run pretrial custody centre. They chanted “Homes, not jails.” They marched. They made speeches for television cameras.

Shantz asks if any camps have been broken up lately, as a recent bylaw
has made it illegal to sleep in public parks. A young woman tells how a bike cop woke her up under a bridge. Next week, he reminds them, someone from the Centre for Excellence is bringing three VANDU members out to do a workshop on HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infection.

A dispute about who took extra cigarettes at the break—there were 40—erupts. “Can I say something?” asks Ed, an angular once-chef, once-limo driver. “We’re all here as brothers and sisters, right? We don’t need the
attitudes or the violence. We need to keep united as one, not divided by two. All right?”

After the meeting, people line up for their $5 honorarium. Shantz promises those who missed cigarettes that he owes them. One guy, complaining, blows him off.

“Look me in the eye,” Shantz demands. “I’ll bring it next time.”

It’s not an easy group, but Shantz loves riling them up. “Creating that enthusiasm to be part of something, to pull strength from,” he says later. “That’s an important thing for a person that has levels of hopelessness beyond most people’s comprehension. To watch these people gain that power, it’s so rewarding to me.”

He carries a Staples box full of new needles to his pickup, behind the law firm. This is where he comes when things get too intense. He’s been extending the topsoil along the rear of the building and up the side wall; planted lilies, iris, and dahlias; and built an arbour where honeysuckle climbs. The twisted willow came from a tree he found behind a dumpster, and he planted another piece of it on his property out past Hope. He’s met a woman, and they’re planning a life together, near the place where the Fraser and the Thompson rivers join.