VANCOUVER SUN REVIEW – Thanks, Tom Sandborn!


By Tom Sandborn, Vancouver Sun April 5, 2013

Imagine an alarmingly energetic and ferocious 70 year old, sparks of intensity almost visible around his short cropped white hair, emphatic nose, flashing eyes and mobile, sensuous lips as he laughs, jokes, insults, entertains and challenges anyone within range of his well trained actor’s voice. Welcome to the Dave Berner Show, a remarkable display of inventiveness, compassion, outrage, opinionated rhetoric and side-splittingly funny stories that has been entertaining, alarming and enriching Vancouver now for decades.

Berner, a well-known local character who has been a talk radio host, TV personality, live theatre actor, journalist, public speaker, provocateur, therapist and therapeutic community founder in Vancouver since the 1960s, has finally written the memoir his friends have longed for and his enemies have feared. Well, not a full memoir; this man has lived more than enough adventure to fill several volumes longer than All the Way Home and in the current book Berner focuses primarily on X-Kalay, the innovative therapeutic community he helped found and lead for nearly a decade in Vancouver. Kalay is a First Nations word for path, so X-Kalay means unknown path. Along the way he gives glimpses of his poverty-stricken early life with his mother, who struggled with manic depression, and his later careers in radio, TV, journalism and public education, but the X-Kalay years are the centre of this well-written, stimulating book.

X-Kalay was founded by Berner and a couple of First Nations ex-convicts in 1967 when they pooled $130 and had the prospect of some ongoing salary for him from the Company of Young Canadians. It was a remarkable social experiment modelled loosely on the American-based Synanon and, like Synanon, influenced by the late ’60s mélange of encounter groups, gestalt therapy and psychodrama emerging up and down the West Coast. But unlike the sometimes over-precious and self-referential tone set in some of the “human potential” workshops of the day, X-Kalay featured a tough-minded focus on real work and concrete activity.

Creating a large and vibrant community of people who had turned their lives into various kinds of train wrecks with drugs, alcohol and general fecklessness, Berner and the X-Kalay pioneers greeted anyone who wanted to live at X-Kalay, or to attend the games, stews and trips (group experiences focusing on confrontational honesty, loving support and high-energy, antic play, some in-house for residents and some open to interested community members) with a challenge that Berner summarizes thus:

“Get busy. Get quiet. Get silly. Get sad. Addictions are about stasis and decay. Addictions are about being asleep on your feet. Addictions are death on a stick. Effective treatment programs really are about cleaning up. Wake up, stand up, shout, play, hit the ball, run the workshop, fix the car, change the diaper, make the meal, live!”

And the mixture of tough love, puritan work ethic, inspired goofiness and mutual aid worked for many. (Berner estimates that about one-quarter of those who came to X-Kalay stayed and got sober.) During its heyday, X-Kalay grew to house up to 125 residents and to operate service stations, hair salons, a lodge on the Gulf Islands and other enterprises staffed with residents. It was a preferred referral for progressive or exasperated social workers, probation officers and judges who saw it as a superior alternative to the hellish revolving-door experiences most addicts suffered in prisons and the sclerotic System. X-Kalay even created a “branch plant” operation in Manitoba, which is still, unlike the Vancouver operation, up and running in 2013.

While X-Kalay itself shut down in 1976, Berner argues that its legacy, as embodied directly in the Manitoba spinoff (now known as the Behavioural Health Foundation) and less directly in other residential therapeutic communities that share elements of the X-Kalay philosophy, remains important in thinking about addiction and treatment. His book is a polemic to promote that approach and to attack what he sees as the misguided “harm reduction” approach, as exemplified locally in the Insight safe injection centre and other attempts to create interventions that will reduce health impacts of addiction without demanding total abstinence. With his typical measured tone, Berner writes:

“There are people who give addicts heroin or methadone and claim that they then do counselling work with the buzzed client. They are more delusional than the addict. The addict, by the way, is laughing up his sleeve at the sorry Santa who is so addicted to ‘helping,’ that he hands out free poison.”

Not everyone involved in addiction treatment sees it that way (and in fact, full disclosure, this reviewer disagrees strongly with Berner’s contempt for harm reduction) but All the Way Home is as strong and persuasive a case for the non-harm-reduction approach as I have ever seen. Whether or not you agree with him on the contentious harm-reduction issue, you will be challenged, entertained, moved and enraged by this remarkable book. Everyone who cares about those who are suffering the hells of addiction or about public policy should go out and get this book, as should anyone who values sentences that are well written, pungent and charged with conviction, passion and wit.

This book is highly recommended. But be careful, you might easily become addicted to Dave Berner’s splendid writing, in which case you might find yourself seeking out his website at for another hit.

All the Way Home is currently available on Amazon or at

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes feedback and story suggestions at
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun