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Son of residential school survivor went from gangs to fighting for Indigenous rights

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WINNIPEG -

Clayton Thomas-Müller spent a large part of his life on the mean streets of Winnipeg, connected to both gangs and drugs, but eventually turned his angst into activism, and has spent decades fighting for Indigenous rights.

It's a story he tells in his new memoir titled "Life in the City of Dirty Water", a reference to the muddy rivers of his hometown.

"I've been in over 100 countries. I always get drawn back to the west end of Winnipeg," Thomas-Müller told CTV News. "To me it's a very special and sacred place."

In the book, Winnipeg is the backdrop to an early life of crime, but also where he forges his path as a voice for human rights and the environment.

An activist, documentarian and author, Thomas-Müller has stood up to the fossil fuel industry, forestry and mining, with his sights set on the hydroelectric system as well.

"All of these really destructive industries are adjacent to our communities and so environmental racism in Canada continues to be very much a red and white issue," he said.

But every story has a beginning, and for Thomas-Müller it started before he was born as the son of a residential school survivor.

"My oldest son I had at 16, so I was just a kid myself," said Thomas-Müller's mother Gail Pelletier. "We've been through a lot together."

In the 1970s, Pelletier found herself trying to raise a child alone while dealing with her own trauma.

"I had to learn to be able to hug and kiss my child without thinking that I was going to abuse him," she said.

Pelletier ended up becoming a psychiatric nurse. On top of teaching her son the importance of education and hard work, she reconnected him with the land and his culture.

"Exposure to our ceremonies saved my life," Thomas-Müller said.

Although he's stepped away from some of his activism, Thomas-Müller said he sees the upcoming National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a new starting point in the fight for Indigenous rights.

"When native people are talking about truth and reconciliation, we're talking about land back," he said. "Until we get that land back we will continue to see the poverty, challenges and polarized political landscape here in this country."

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