Throughout His Life , Curtis Cardinal has witnessed firsthand the impacts of addiction. Today, as the owner of Tee Pee Treats, a take-out and delivery eatery, he’s determined to not only beat addiction, but to help others along their own paths to sobriety.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been surrounded by drugs and alcohol, that’s just how it was,” he says.
As a child, Cardinal lived in a long list of Northern Albertan communities, alternating between staying with his mother, father and other family members at different times.
“Growing up was really tough on me, in a lot of ways. Going back and forth between different homes and living in so many different communities that I’ve lost count, it made me stronger,” he says. “But then, you know, I started drinking.”
At age 15, Cardinal experienced a significant loss — a cousin close to him was killed in a drinking and driving accident. Looking back on it, Cardinal recognizes it as a pivotal moment, one of that would change the trajectory of his life for the next few years.
“That was the first time I’d experienced a death in the family,” he says. “After that, I just started drinking from when I was 15 until I was 23… I just kept drinking.”
Cardinal dropped out of school, moved away from his family, and lived on the streets. At 23, he entered rehab at Poundmaker’s Lodge, an Indigenous addiction treatment centre in Sturgeon County, for the first time. Although he didn’t break his addiction with that visit, that experience was the first in a long line of steps he’d eventually take towards getting clean.
“It wasn’t until 2012, and my third time at Poundmaker’s. That’s when I realized what I needed to do, and where I needed help. I wasn’t going to get out of this on my own,” he says. “Growing up, as a kid, seeing addiction, and seeing violence, it was just bad. All that came back to me when I was an adult and I was in rehab. And I had to learn to forgive.”
After years lost to addiction, that visit to rehab brought Cardinal to a turning point. He took a job working for the inner-city agencies that had once helped him to get off the street, and spent the next few years supporting others who were facing the obstacles of poverty and addiction.
“I want to help people get through their challenges, because I know what I went through to get here,” he says. “It’s really hard at first, I know. But it’s so worth it in the end.”
After six years working in the inner city, Cardinal wanted to find another way to help those around him — and was taken back to the years he spent learning to cook from his mom. He knew there was nothing quite as powerful as a good meal, served and shared with community. He began bringing and selling bannock at powwows, and started working with a local Indigenous food truck to gain kitchen experience.
“I knew I could cook and was good at it. And I knew I wanted to open a restaurant. That’s always been the goal,” he says. “I wanted to be able to do my own thing, I just had to take my time and my own path to get there.”
In 2018, Cardinal opened Tee Pee Treats as a catering company. Throughout 2018 and ’19, business boomed. While 2020 was a difficult year, Cardinal used it as an opportunity to shift strategies and build his business in a new way. Rather than leaving his culinary dreams behind, he doubled down, securing a temporary kitchen space in the back of St. Faith’s Anglican Church off 118th Avenue, to operate a takeout and delivery restaurant.
Since open-ing its doors in March 2021, the business has kept busy, offering a rotating menu of Indigenous-inspired dishes ranging from bannock tacos and burgers to traditional soups and chilis. Even as Tee Pee Treats has gained success, Cardinal hasn’t lost sight of the community he supports. Since 2017, he has made a point of giving back to those in need at an annual event called Giving Back to the Streets. Each year, along with a team of volunteers, Cardinal helps to serve more than 300 bowls of traditional soups and stews with bannock to inner city residents. For Cardinal, there’s nothing quite as healing as the power of food.
“Especially through the pandemic, this is the kind of thing we really need. People miss the comfort of a meal like that, eating together, and there’s so much healing that can happen through food,” he says.
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This article appears in the September 2021 issue of Edify