By: Janet Whitman
LORNE, PICTOU COUNTY: Tyson Bowen was just trying to stay alive in the days and months after his early exit from the Canadian Forces after two tours in Afghanistan.
A chance meeting with a fellow Cape Bretoner – retired sergeant and medical marijuana advocate Fabian Henry – landed Bowen an opportunity not only to help himself, but also hundreds more PTSD survivors like him.
Backed by the multi-million-dollar fortune Henry made after selling a chain of medical cannabis clinics he launched in 2013 called Marijuana for Trauma, Bowen acquired a 400-acre former dairy farm in Lorne, Pictou County. He’s turning the spot into a not-for-profit eco-adventure park, geared towards healing veterans like himself through nature.
The Sydney native, who spent his early childhood in Isle Madame before moving to Pictou County when he was nine, credits his wife with the connection. Bowen was having trouble with his Department of Veterans Affairs paperwork and she urged him to make an appointment with Henry.
Henry, a PTSD survivor himself, had an office in Oromocto, N.B., to help veterans navigate the myriad of Veterans Affairs forms, a task that had been bogging Bowen down for months.
While in the meeting, Bowen told Henry about his idea for venture to help veterans – a pipe dream he thought might come at the end of a 25-year army career, not after a PTSD diagnosis in 2015 and medical release three years later after 14 years in the armed forces.
Bowen says he was inspired to find a way to help after “just seeing and being in the treatment process and realizing that it’s not a cookie-cutter to fix mental health.”
“What works for one, doesn’t work for five others,” he says.
Getting Henry and his veterans charity to support the effort, “just kinda happened,” he says.
He got the farm in June 2019 with funds from the Global Alliance Foundation Fund (GAFF), a not-for-profit Henry co-founded with an estimated $12-million he reaped after selling his chain of medical marijuana clinics.
Henry already had plans to roll out a similar healing retreat in Cape Breton. In 2017, he bought 130 acres in Pipers Glen. He also acquired an old call centre in Port Hawkesbury to turn it into a licenced cannabis production factory, with a goal to raise $10 million in backing from investors.
His charity earlier this year abandoned a deal to spend nearly $4 million for another 300 acres near Inverness known as Chimney Corner Beach, an iconic sunbathing spot owned by the estate of the late coal mining developer Lewis Evans. Henry didn’t respond to requests seeking comment on how a shakeout in Canada’s cannabis industry is affecting his plans.
Bowen estimates he needs to raise about $2.7 million to build out the various phases for his eco-adventure park he’s dubbed Real Canadian Recreation.
Among the recent donations was $5,000 from the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 43 in Port Hawkesbury.
Joined by his father, Steve Bowen, the younger Bowen made a presentation outlining his plans for the park to legion members, telling them about how every day life noises and events can trigger debilitating memories for PTSD survivors.
“At the time of my release, I didn’t think much more than just trying to get to the next day,” says Bowen. “Now that I have this project, it makes it easier.”
While his planned park is a 90-minute drive away from the Port Hawkesbury legion, its central location in Nova Scotia makes it a decent distance for vets from all over the Maritimes for daytrips or longer stays, he says.
“We’re lucky where we’re located. Even from P.E.I., you could leave in the morning and come visit for a few hours and head back home.”
He’s planning barrack-style accommodations and other facilities in the more than a century-old barn on the property. A group of vets visited earlier this month to help turn a pile of donated wood into A-frame cabins as an option for veterans visiting with their families.
“Our goal is to make 18 of those tents,” says Bowen.
The park won’t open for at least another year, but he estimates around 100 vets have visited so far, many to pitch in on renovations and construction.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” says Bowen, who’s lost a number of former colleagues to suicide. “If they want to come and dig a hole with a tractor or go fishing, they can.”