“What a cute kid, right?” Jordan Buna asked the young crowd with a chuckle.
A few feet away, a projector inside a classroom at Fraser Heights’ Erma Stephenson Elementary displayed a photo of him as a 12-year-old Surrey boy in full hockey gear.
“That kid is like any one of you guys in this room,” he said. “The kid in that picture could’ve pretty much gone and done and been whoever he wanted to.”
But that kid became a criminal – a gangster.
“So the whole point of this presentation – remember that face – is to see what turned that sweet, smiling innocent kid in that picture into that,” he said, pointing as the projector changed to show a police mugshot of Buna.
The now-reformed Buna was at Erma Stephenson that day to speak to Grade 7 students, as part of a new program called Shattering the Image that aims to shed light on the realities of gang life.
The presentation has been shown to thousands of Surrey students since its creation this fall, and is the first time a hard-hitting presentation being done in the city’s elementary schools, before they transition into high school.
Surrey RCMP say youth as young as 13 are being recruited into gang life, and this program is an effort to stop it.
With tattoos peaking out under his sleeves, Buna began his part of the presentation by detailing his childhood.
He showed more photos of himself from when he was the same age as those sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him. In a poignant recount of his troubled youth and his road to redemption, Buna told his tale about how he went from a happy boy in elementary school, to a man who trafficked drugs across Canada.
“Those are two very different pictures of the same person,” he said of his youthful photos, and his mugshot. “It was nothing more, nothing less than the people I chose to surround myself with, and the decisions I made every single day.”
Buna’s road has been a bumpy one. Elementary school was normal. It’s a time when Buna described himself as a “good kid,” who got good grades, was a Science Fair champ, and a well-rounded athlete.
His first stumble came in Grade 7, when he admittedly became defiant and thrill-seeking, which landed him in a doctor’s office and ultimately ended with a diagnosis of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). He was put on Ritalin.
“A month or two later, all the sudden it’s so much easier for me to focus, to sit still, to pay attention, to get my work done,” he said. “It took a lot of the pressure off for me. I’m not getting into as much trouble, and things started to get easier. And I kind of went more back to being that good kid I was.”
Then high school happened.
Buna recalled wanting to impress all the kids, many of whom were older and cooler to the wide-eyed Grade 8 child.
He decided to go off his meds, unbeknownst to his parents or doctors, because he felt it was making him “boring” and a “zombie” and “making no one notice him.”
It was also a time when he met a group of new friends.
One day, while out with these “negative” friends, he shoplifted for the first time.
He got caught.
Buna said he was handcuffed and taken home in a police car, and by chance, his “more positive, elementary school” friends were playing street hockey on his block when he rolled through.
“What do you think those parents said to their kids? ‘Don’t hang out with Jordan, he’s bad.’ At first when I heard that I thought, ‘Whatever, they’re not going to listen.’ But it hurt when they actually did…. I lost almost all the positive people in my life overnight,” Buna said.
He quickly got closer with his negative group. His defiance returned, as did his thrill-seeking behaviour which slowly became criminal. He was breaking into cars, smoking and selling drugs, and fighting became a “weekly event.”
A tragic end to a school fight near LA Matheson Secondary was a turning point for Buna. A scrap against kids from another school ended with his friend being run over, dragged and killed. Afterward, he saw the pain his 16-year-old friend’s death left behind.
“When you die, you don’t pay the consequences of what happens after,” said Buna.
“I didn’t care about myself but I cared about my dad and my mom and my brother. I didn’t want my parents to go through that.”
Buna went back on his meds, and immediately his grades started to improve and things appeared to be back on track.
He attended an RCMP Youth Academy over spring break, and was inspired to become a police officer. He applied and was accepted into a criminology university program.
“All it took was a year or two of focus, and being down for myself, instead of my friends who, in the end, didn’t care about me anyways,” he told the students.
But things took another dive when he began to party in the summer after high school, and when university came in September, he found himself struggling and didn’t seek academic help. After failing all of his classes, he dropped out.
“I felt direction-less,” he said.
So, he sought a new goal, choosing to seek to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“After months of physical and aptitude tests, I was acing them. I thought I was in,” he said. “There was no plan B.”
But he was about to face the biggest blow yet.
Buna said he’ll never forget the words on the letter from the army: “Subject is not combat deploy-able.”
“They wouldn’t let me into the military because I was diagnosed with ADD and I’d been put on medication for it and I disclosed that,” he lamented. “It’s a policy they’ve now changed, but when I applied, it was just, ‘no.’
“I gave up on my dreams,” he added. “I once again allowed myself to get angry.”
He found a job cooking and busing tables at a Surrey eatery known to be a gathering place for gangsters.
“You want to know what gang recruitment looks like?… It’s going to come in an enticing, seductive way. Gang recruitment for me, was after I started to get to know these guys, and they’d say ‘Why do you wanna work here? You can make more money doing this with us.’” Buna said. “Gang recruitment for me, would be busing some of these tables and they’d hand you a $100 bill. They didn’t even have to recruit me, I wanted it.”
Like many young men in Surrey selling drugs today, he began as a dial-a-doper.
Buna said he had his fair share of “white knuckle moments” during his criminal life, but the scariest of all were during his dial-a-dope days, which Surrey RCMP say is the entry-level job for most youth who are successfully recruited into gangs.
“I was robbed at needlepoint before,” Buna told the students. “Not knifepoint or gunpoint. Needlepoint.”
He was later promoted from the dial-a-doper job.
A few years into his gang life, police raided a grow-op he was running. At 22 years old, he was charged and convicted of production of a controlled substance, and possession for the purpose of trafficking. Six months later, he was arrested again, this time for having a loaded gun. He was sentenced to a year in prison.
“(Jail) is a place where a lot of violence happens. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of sadness,” he said. “I spent Christmas in there, I spent my birthday in there. You want to see a sad place? Look at a place like jail on Christmas. No one’s siting around acting like a tough guy, they’re sitting around missing their kids, missing their wives, missing their parents, wishing they could do things over again.”
That experience spurred him to return to university, to get that degree he sought right out of high school, and today, he works as an outreach worker for the Surrey school district and also presents to children across B.C. as part of the province’s anti-gang unit, CFSEU.
“Ultimately, your guys’ lives are going to be what you make them,” Buna told the students.
“It’s going to be the people you spend your time with, the decisions you make every single day and that’s what’s going to determine if you become successful or if you unfortunately end up in a place I ended up.”
He told the kids their transition into high school “is going to be a milestone year.”
“You have a lot of important decisions to make,” he stressed. “Decisions like the kind of people that you’re going to surround yourself with when you get to high school. The kind of work habits you’re going to have. It’s going to take a lot of good choices to build something in your life. It only takes a couple of bad choices to wreck some the hard work you’ve put in.”
Erma Stephenson’s Vice Principal Shelley Stark said the presentation was “way more powerful” than she expected.
“I think it will resonate with the kids,” she said after Buna’s talk. “We just want to make sure they’re empowered and have the information they need to make wise choices, and that they realize they’re not invincible. That’s a very common feeling for young people to have.”
Stark said she intends to invite the RCMP and Buna back for another presentation, but this time for parents.
“It’s hard for teachers to keep up with all the changes. For parents, it’s that much harder.”
Fraser Heights is not immune to such realities, she said.
“For people who think because they live in a nice area, with a higher than average socioeconomic population, you think you’re immune to some of this. You think, ‘It’s happening in Newton, or Guildford,’ but it isn’t necessarily,” Stark said. “It just depends if they’ve decided to recruit at your school. There’s lonely, isolated kids at every school.”
NEXT UP: In a series finale, we look back at previous efforts to curb gun and drug violence in Surrey, and at a bill tabled by Trudeau’s Liberal government that aims to impact the issue through new gun laws.