Starting over

Cranbrook Daily Townsman

Annalee Grant, reporter

A man who lost everything in a fire reflects at the site wrapped in his traditional button blanket.

A man who lost everything in a fire reflects at the site wrapped in his traditional button blanket.

Ross Dixon has started over again before. He knows what it takes to begin life again with nothing. He knows how to avoid turning back to his old demons – and he knows his Haida faith will get him through it once again.

“I know now it’s a new beginning,” Ross said. “I’m starting all over again.”

But that doesn’t make his loss any less. Ross was a tenant at 806 Baker St. for the past nine years before it burnt down on April 24. It was by sheer luck that he wasn’t in the building at the time; he had been called in to work the night shift at Safeway on what was supposed to be a day off.

“I did actually thank my boss from the bottom of my heart,” Ross said. “I do thank people that I am here.”

It was during that night time shift that 806 Baker St. went up in flames. Ross’s co-workers stepped outside for a break at the Safeway, looking West down Baker St. They noticed flashing lights and RCMP police cruisers off in the distance outside the building Ross called home. They summoned their friend, who joined them for a break. He didn’t think anything of it – the police had been there before many times to deal with a rowdy tenant. But then Ross noticed a curl of smoke rising over the city block.

“All I said was ‘Oh God,’” Ross said. His boss let him go, and Ross headed to his apartment to find a hive of activity; fire crews, RCMP, tenants and more bustled at the site.

No one knew Ross was safe and sound at work, and little did he know, emergency personnel were actively searching the building for him.

Finally, as he watched the scene, Ross was spotted by his neighbours – the tenants in one of the four apartment buildings, of which only two were occupied.

“They thought I was in there,” Ross recalled. “They both grabbed me and they were shaking like a leaf.”

What Ross lost in the fire was irreplaceable. What hurts him most isn’t the brand new coffee pot that had been gifted to him. It wasn’t the brand new plasma TV or the kitchen gadgets he collected. What hurt the most was the items he created and owned that connected him most to his Haida Nation roots. In his room as the fire burned around it, were his wife, son and daughters’ button blankets – a blanket used in Haida culture as a garment for traditional ceremonies like powwows. He lost the eagle hat he had created, and other artwork that can’t be replaced. One button blanket remained – his own – as it had been left in his vehicle.

Ross regrets that he couldn’t have saved the belongings that held a deep spiritual connection to his Haida Nation. The elder has been through a lot in his lifetime, and the Baker St. fire is just the latest after he’d gotten back on his feet.

In 1994, Ross had enough. He quit drinking and got clean. It’s been 18 years since he’s touched a drink, and he eagerly looks forward to celebrating the 20 year mark in 2014. He moved to Cranbrook in 2001 in search of a new life for himself – and he found it.

“He’s been through a lot,” said Ross’s neice, Patrice.

Ross moved to Cranbrook in 2001, and has been living at 806 Baker St. for the past nine years. When Ross moved in, the building was just what he needed as he continued his recovery.

“Everything was good,” he said. “When I moved in that place, it was a peaceful place for me.”

Recently, Patrice and Ross’s family had brought up concerns about the building their uncle lived in. Patrice remembers spreading open the curtains one day to let in some light – only to find a brick wall just inches from her face. She knew her uncle couldn’t get out the window if he ever needed to in an emergency.

“If I was in there sleeping, there’s no way I’d be getting out that window,” Ross said.

Ross becomes emotional when he talks about the friends who have helped him so far – not just with a place to stay and food – but with encouragement that the Haida artwork he lost can be recreated.

“I thank you all for giving me all the support,” he said, clutching his chest over his heart as tears spill from his eyes. “You make me feel good. I didn’t realize how much people really did love me.”

After the fire, Ross was able to access 72-hour emergency assistance, which set him up in a hotel for three nights. After that, he had nothing, but word spread to a friend named Mark Saddler, who immediately made sure Ross had what he needed – more nights in the hotel and food vouchers from Superstore.

Patrice said now the priority is to get a roof over her uncle’s head so he can maintain his independence that he fought so hard to earn back after getting clean 18 years ago.

“People don’t realize how much I’ve turned my life around,” he said.

Patrice is overjoyed by her uncle’s success through the tragedy. He has been speaking with a councillor since the fire, and hasn’t once thought of turning back to alcohol.

“I’m very proud of you, because you have 18 years sobriety and never once thought of having a drink,” she told her uncle.

Ross is proud of himself, and said he owes his continued sobriety to his strong Haida faith.

“I’m really glad that my spirit is strong,” he said. “Most people would turn around and drink. I’m still pulling that wagon – I’m pulling it, not the horse.”

A man reflects on life after a fire destroyed everything he had.

A man reflects on life after a fire destroyed everything he had.

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