Rick Sauvé loves motorcycles.
“I always have, always will,” he says.
Since the first time he rode one, the 65-year-old activist says the feel of the wind in his hair, and the possibilities of the open road gave him a sense of freedom he had never known — so he admits it’s a bit ironic that his love of something that made him “feel so free” is the same thing that eventually led to his incarceration.
Standing at the front of a Vernon lecture hall at Okanagan College Tuesday night, looking slightly uncomfortable, Sauvé, dressed from head to toe in black, pushes his rimless glasses up the bridge of his nose, tosses his long, grey ponytail over his shoulder and begins to tell the audience his story.
In 1978, Sauvé was a new father working in a factory in a small eastern Ontario town, and president of his union local. He was also a member of Satan’s Choice, a notorious motorcycle club that was disbanded in the early 2000s.
Around 11 p.m. on Oct. 18, 1979 he was called to a meeting at a local bar that ended with the murder of rival gang member, Bill Matiyek.
Though it was nearly 40 years ago, Sauvé remembers that night like it was yesterday.
He and another young man, Gary Comeau, sat at a table in the corner of a hotel bar with Matiyek trying to talk him out of blowing them both away.
“Bill [Matiyek] had a gun and tells us, ‘If anyone does anything, I’m gonna shoot.’ I’m pretty sure he was drunk,” Sauvé adds.
In a flash of commotion, Matiyek was shot, and Sauvé was one of six club members convicted for his killing. Though he adamantly maintained his innocence Sauvé was charged with first degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
“It was a long and complicated trial where a lot of things were convoluted. They would have convicted us of the Lindbergh kidnapping if they could have. In the end though, I went to prison for 17 and half years, but I think of myself as lucky I only had to serve that long for a crime I didn’t commit. I always say on the altar of justice, truth is the sacrificial lamb.”
The case became the subject of an award-winning book by Mick Lowe, Conspiracy of Brothers, and a Steve Earle ballad, Justice in Ontario.
Sauvé began his sentence at the notorious Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ont., where he recalls seeing three fellow prisoners killed over a two-week period.
“A guy a few cells down was stabbed to death and shoved under a bed in his cell… I remember seeing that and running back to my cell to make sure no one had stuffed a body under my bed. That happens to you after awhile — you learn to think that way. If you see someone walking down the rows in a big jacket, you begin to assume they are probably concealing a knife.”
In the four and a half years he stayed at Millhaven, before being transferred to Collins Bay in Kingston, Ont., Sauvé said 12 people were killed and hundreds more beaten and stabbed. He credits his survival to maintaining an air of mystery and learning to “read” people.
“When I went to prison, I wasn’t prepared for it. I had no concept of what happened in there,” he said.
“How do you prepare for that? I was scared and I didn’t know if I was ever getting out. I thought about giving up. I thought about suicide. I thought about escape. That’s what happens …. you lose hope. And the longer you stay in prison, the farther away you get from yourself.”
He found the way back to himself and hope after a visit from his young daughter. Having quit school to work after Grade 10, Sauvé decided to earn his high school diploma. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Queen’s University, and an honours BA in criminology from the University of Ottawa. He later finished his thesis and earned a master’s in criminology.
“I didn’t want to be one of those guys I’d see who always talked about prison,” he says.
“It gave me something to do and it allowed me the opportunity to talk to my daughter and my family about something other than being in prison.”
While he pursued his education, Sauvé began studying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and discovered an injustice.
“The Charter says all citizens have the right to vote, but inmates were being denied that right, and I thought, I’m a citizen — I should be able to vote.”
He challenged the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and after a decade-long legal battle, he won, affirming the voting rights of all inmates.
In 1995, Sauvé made a successful parole application under the criminal code’s faint-hope clause (since eliminated by the Harper government) and was released and quickly obtained a job with Life-Line, an award-winning program that helps rehabilitate prisoners and works to prevent them from re-offending. While passionate about the work, he said, initially, there was some trepidation.
“When I was offered that job with Life-Line, I knew it meant going back into some of these places (prisons) and I said, ‘You must be mental,’ but then I thought about the people there — the people I left behind. And I said yes,”
Sauvé says he will continue to dedicate his life to improving the situation for prisoners, rightfully or wrongfully convicted, because he believes everyone has “certain rights” that shouldn’t be denied.
“I’ve been asked if I’m angry about the time I lost while I was incarcerated, and yeah, of course, I’m angry as hell, but I feel like I was better off channeling that anger into something useful — that makes it better for others.”
In 2017, Sauvé received the Government of Canada’s Human Rights in Corrections Award. The award, administered by the correctional ombudsman’s office, has historically gone to lawyers, bureaucrats and academics. He is the first former inmate to win the award. He celebrated in the most appropriate way he knew how, with a long ride on the open road.