A Yellowknife kickboxing coach who hopes to be the next Frame Lake MLA says his conviction following a major 2007 drugs investigation can help him be a better NWT politician.
John Stanley was given a five-year prison sentence for his role in what the CBC called “one of the largest drug operations in Newfoundland and Labrador history.”
In Operation Roadrunner, Stanley and others pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine and marijuana.
With time served, Stanley says he spent 28 months in prison. As soon as he was released, in late 2009, he made his way to Yellowknife “because I needed to start my life over,” he told Cabin Radio.
Stanley says his achievements in the city since – establishing and growing a gym, Stanley Boxing and Fitness, and becoming a national-level kickboxing coach – demonstrate that lives can be turned around. He says that by becoming an MLA, he can apply what he knows now to some of the NWT’s own problems with addictions and drug crime.
“I don’t know, coming forth in an election, if that’s something that people are going to try to hold against me or not,” he said of his conviction.
“I think I’m living proof that you certainly can rehabilitate and change your life if you have the right supports and the right people behind you, and you’re willing to make the effort to change things.
“I have a pretty deep understanding of how that world works. While I’ve never been a partaker of drugs or anything, I’ve been around people who are. I’ve seen how the justice system works, I’ve seen how they fall into the system. And I feel I have some very good ideas on how to keep them out of there.”
Stanley and former city councillor Julian Morse are so far the two prospective candidates who say they will run in Yellowknife’s Frame Lake district. Incumbent Kevin O’Reilly has not confirmed whether he will seek a third term.
Territorial election day is October 3, 2023.
Collecting drug money
The CBC won a Canadian Screen Award for reporter David Cochrane’s televised account of Operation Roadrunner, which Cochrane called “one of the most successful drug investigations in Royal Newfoundland Constabulary history.”
The drug ring exposed by the operation was masterminded by two Québec men who shipped drugs to St John’s. Stanley and another man were, to use the CBC’s term, “local muscle.” (One officer referred to them as “the fall guys.”)
“Their job was to distribute the drugs and collect the money,” Cochrane told his audience in the CBC report, which showed officers searching Stanley’s home at the time and installing a secret microphone. The CBC aired an audio recording from that microphone that the broadcaster said had captured Stanley saying: “Oh, there’s a rat. We know there is, just trying to find him. And when we do, we’ll take care of it.”
More than 15 years after those events, Stanley asserts that some of the account put forward by police isn’t what was really happening.
“A lot of it had been blown quite out of proportion, quite honestly,” he said in an interview last week.
“A lot of the things that were said are not true … I was never involved in trafficking, even though it was a conspiracy that I was initially, you know, brought into.”
Stanley says that while he pleaded guilty to being part of a drug trafficking operation, his role was limited to collecting money and being some of the operation’s physical presence on the streets of St John’s – though he acknowledges that even if he didn’t actively deal drugs, he was part of the broader scheme.
“I was involved in collecting money,” he told the Tell Me More! podcast in late 2022.
“I’ve never done a hard drug in my lifetime, right? I don’t like it. I kind-of used that as a motivation when I was collecting [money from people], because I wasn’t really into the people who did, who lived that lifestyle. Let’s just say I wasn’t a big fan of them at the time.
“By the time we actually got arrested and all that shit went down, dude, people were hiding from me … all these so-called big, bad gangsters and all that kind of stuff that were running around town, they were running around like a bunch of scared little chickens.”
Speaking with Cabin Radio, Stanley says he was running a business with around 70 employees that “got in trouble,” which is how he became part of the trafficking operation.
“I got an offer from a guy to get involved with the money side of things, and I got involved in it, and then I just kind-of fell deeper into it,” he said.
“That’s one of the things about this world that I try to express to kids when I’m talking about it now: it’s not what you think it is. It’s not a fun world to be in.
“Just making a phone call and being involved in a conversation, or being associated with certain people – that can lead you into some serious issues in your life.”
Yellowknife ‘has been so embracing’
On the day he was arrested, Stanley says he realized the impact of his actions on his family.
“I come from a very good family. My dad’s a military veteran, he owned a security company, and there’s a lot more to my life than that. That was a very small period,” he said of his conviction.
“I grew up in the security business. My brother’s a police officer, I’m university educated … you wouldn’t expect me to be involved in that kind of thing, at the end of the day. It just happened and it just spiralled.
“I wanted out and it wasn’t difficult for me to get out. It wasn’t like I was involved in any gang or anything like that.” (The police and CBC both connected various members of the drug trafficking ring to the Hells Angels, a connection Stanley disputes.)
Getting out meant coming to Yellowknife, where his sister was living in late 2009.
“From the beginning, it was amazing,” he told Cabin Radio of his arrival in the city. He says he picked up a job in construction then worked in hotel management for the Coast company, and was soon teaching the boxing classes that had been his passion in Newfoundland.
“I have a family now and two daughters. This community has been so embracing to me that I want to give back, is essentially what it comes down to,” he said of his decision to announce last month that he plans to run for territorial office.
“I want to show people that you can change your life, no matter how down you are in life and whatever situation you find yourself in. You can rehabilitate yourself, you can make an impact on your community, and you can become a very productive citizen.”
Stanley says he already tries to use that experience with the youth he works alongside as a coach, and is hoping to spend time talking to young people held at the Yellowknife jail’s young offender unit. He works with groups like youth support organization Home Base Yellowknife, he said, “trying to steer kids in the other direction.”
“Coming from me, it’s different than coming from someone who’s in law enforcement or someone who’s a paid counsellor,” Stanley said, adding that youth can “see someone who’s actually been there and can say, ‘Look, it’s not the right path. This is why it’s not the right path. This is how my life ended up.'”
Asked how his life experience might be incorporated into the policies he would pursue, Stanley said he is “not an individual who’s for light sentencing and all that kind of thing.”
“I think everybody deserves a second chance but not a third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh chance,” he said. “At some point in time, we have to increase sentencing. You have to put them in for a little while, unfortunately, and that’s just reality. You’re not doing anybody a service by letting them out, putting them back in. I would see people get out on a Friday and they’re back on Monday. The court system has to change.”
He said the key to solving some of the territory’s problems regarding addiction “is getting people when they’re youth, not adults.” His platform in part describes working toward “a future where our children have access to education, healthcare, and meaningful employment opportunities.”
His actions in St John’s, he said, “led to the crashing of my life as a whole.”
“Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories had been extremely good to me. I showed up here in 2010 with basically nothing and I built a successful business here,” he said.
“I’ve now considered [running for office] for several years, and I felt like I was at a time in my life when I could really give back.”