The Backstory

Telling the whole story

Black and white photo of black man standing in front of an apartment building

Curtis Carmichael, Artsci’16, remembers going to the library as a child, looking for inspiration, but coming up empty-handed. 

“I wanted to read a Canadian story of a young person who was able to break the cycle of poverty,” he says, “because that was what I wanted to do.” The book didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop Mr. Carmichael from looking for it every time he visited the library. Eventually, without a blueprint to follow, he resorted to hard – and smart – work.

His efforts earned him a scholarship to Queen’s, where he was best known as a star wide receiver and the winner of the 2016 Russ Jackson Award as the U SPORTS “player who best exemplified the attributes of academic achievement, football skill, and citizenship.”

A native of Scarborough’s Block 13 neighbourhood, Mr. Carmichael experienced culture shock when he arrived at Queen’s. “I saw wealth for the first time in my life,” he says. It made him think about what it takes to achieve success. “I thought about the skills and mentalities and abilities that successful people have,” he says, “and I realized that these are things I saw in my own neighbourhood every day. And I knew that, with the right opportunities, we could train kids in any neighbourhood for a successful career.”

Thanks to his on-field heroics, Mr. Carmichael was on track for a successful career in professional football. He signed with an agent and made a big enough impression at the CFL combine that he was invited to join a couple of practice rosters. But matters off the field were vying for his attention, and he had to make a decision. “I had to figure out if I was more passionate about football or about the changes I could make in the world longterm,” he says. He made his choice, hung up his cleats, and returned home to Scarborough.

Today Mr. Carmichael is an award-winning social entrepreneur, STEM educator, keynote speaker, technologist, cross-Canada cyclist, and advocate for racial justice. And although he works in Block 13, he no longer lives there. Yet one thing remained unchanged since his childhood: that book about a young Canadian breaking the cycle of poverty was still nowhere to be found.

“I figured once I became a teacher, I would be able to find that book some-where,” he says, “but no such luck.” Mr. Carmichael recalled the words of author Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Butterflies in the Trenches is the result of Mr. Carmichael taking Morrison’s advice to heart. It tells the story of his childhood in Block 13 and the lessons he learned there that enabled him to evolve from a child drug dealer to a cross-country cyclist. “There are lots of stories about poverty, systemic racism, and police brutality,” he says, “but we forget about the beautiful things in those neighbourhoods – the community, the raw talent and genius, the love. I wanted to tell the whole story, the negative, the positive, and everything in between.”

But Mr. Carmichael wasn’t content merely to tell his story. He wanted readers to experience it right along with him. “I always wanted to write a book that readers could really immerse themselves in,” he says. And so he created an app that scans the book’s photos, giving readers access to videos and other interactive content. “I didn’t know it was going to be the world’s first augmented reality memoir,” he says. “I just did it, and later I realized that no one else was doing it.”

Whether they simply read the book or take advantage of the multimedia offerings, Mr. Carmichael hopes the experience will leave his readers feeling inspired to follow in his footsteps. “It’s not a feel-good story or a self-help guide,” he says. “It’s a blueprint to break the cycle of poverty so that kids can author their own life stories.”
Butterflies in the Trenches will be available exclusively through Curtis Carmichael’s website following a free virtual book launch through the Queen’s University Alumni Association on Nov. 30 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

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