Day 292 - Dennis (1st person I approached)
October 19, 2014 - Dennis was sitting by himself, looking out over the waters of False Creek. He had one leg up on the bench he was sitting on, and I made a comment about how comfortable he looked.
“Well, I’m just sitting here enjoying he view. It changes so quickly! I’m sure there are at least two new towers that weren’t there yesterday,” he said, laughing with a wide toothless grin. When I asked him if he’d chat with me, he replied,
“Sure, I don’t have anything else to do right now.” I made sure he’d be okay with me taking his picture, and we were set.
Dennis was born on the First Nations reserve, Fisher River, in Manitoba. The Cree First Nations reserve is located about 190km north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dennis is the ninth child of twelve, comprising of six girls and six boys.
“My parents were both Christians and we were raised as Christians. We went to church on Sunday’s. My parents both carried their faith throughout their entire life," he said.
There was a school on the reserve, that went up to Grade six.
"I heard stories from my cousins of some of the horrors there, but I never experienced anything first hand. One of my older sisters wanted to go to high-school. That didn’t exist on the reserve, so she got sent to a residential school. Everything you've heard that happened, happened. We called it Evil School,” he said. By the time Dennis had finished Grade six, there was a high-school built on the reserve located next to Fisher River.
“I went to high-school on the Peguis First Nation reserve. That was the largest (First Nation Community) in Manitoba. So kids from both nations went to that school. It was pretty crowded,” he said.
“I went to school until Grade nine,” he said.
“When I quit school, I moved out of the house. I stayed on the reserve, but moved out of my parents home. I started working. Mostly working on the farm lands, picking fruit of working with crops,” he said. Dennis also started drinking and left religion behind him.
“I had three near death situations, growing up. The first one was when I was eighteen. I was with a couple of friends and we were intoxicated. My friend was driving, I was in the backseat. We took a bend in the road that probably should have been driven at no more than 15kms, and we hit it at around 100kms. We hit four concrete pillions and a metal fence before the car landed in the river. I hit the seat in front of me and got winded. My friends had already gotten out. By the time I was able to breath, the water was up to my neck. We walked away from that, no one hurt. It could have ended very differently,” said Dennis.
He got married at the age of twenty-five. His wife also lived on the Fisher River reserve.
“We had two children, a son and a daughter. We were together for eight years before we got divorced. At that time, you could only get work on the reserve if you were married, and if you weren’t, you had to find work off the reserve. I didn’t want to get married just to find work,” he said. Dennis moved to Winnipeg.
“I was working in construction in Winnipeg. That’s were the second near death happened. I was sleeping on the couch and my room mate came running in and told me there was a fight outside and to come outside and help him. The guy he was fighting ended up stabbing me in my lower back. I didn’t even know I had been stabbed. I was laying on the ground and felt a puddle. It was my blood. Luckily for me, no major damage happened. Someone was watching out for me, I think,” he said. Dennis became involved with a woman in Winnipeg, and had another daughter, ‘out of wedlock’ as he put it.
“I came to Vancouver (British Columbia - BC) to get out of Winnipeg. It was time,” he said.
“I got a job as a roofer. That’s how the third accident I had happened. Just fifteen minutes into the day. Most accidents in construction happen at the start or the end of the day. In roofing you have to be alert, and pay attention to every foot step and where you are about to set a foot down,” he told me. He was working on the roof of the large Colossus movie theatre in Langley, BC.
“I was distracted. My son had just been sent to jail for manslaughter. We were up on the roof cutting in holes for the AC (air conditioning). I moved forward to get out of the way of my buddy, who was cutting the last of three holes. I was in the middle of the first two, and the bottom of my pant leg got caught on the edge of one of the holes. I moved backwards to fix it and fell through the hole behind me. It seemed like it was happening in slow motion. I was sliding down a wall, head first and it felt like a pressure on my chest was keeping me against the wall. I landed on a concrete pad about the size of this (the bench we were sitting on). I landed hard and my immediate reaction was to try and sit up. But there was a pressure on my chest keeping me down. If I had moved, I would have rolled off the pad and continued falling another seventy feet. Someone was looking out for me, yet again,” he said, with reverence in his voice.
After years of working in construction, combined with drugs and alcohol, Dennis said
“My body was wrecked. I don’t have any teeth left because of my cocaine use.” He had a few seizures, and his Doctor told him if he didn’t give up the drugs and alcohol, he would die.
“My two younger sisters were both living in Winnipeg. They both died the same year, about eight months apart. One of them had cancer and she died. I’m a cancer survivor myself. Cancer of the lung. I have only a small part of my right lung remaining. They had to remove most of the right side. My other sister died because of complications with being a drug addict. She had a heart attack,” he said. We sat quietly.
"They went without God in their lives. I spoke with my older sister about that. She felt that they would be turned away. God would tell them he didn’t recognize them and turn them away. I don’t want to die without God,” he said.
“I started walking with God about three years ago. After both my sisters had gone. I stopped drinking and using drugs. I’ve been clean and sober since then. I try to walk with God daily. I go to bible study classes on Sunday. That’s where I was this morning before coming to sit here and enjoy the view, “ he said. For the last year or so, Dennis has been getting support from VNHS. The Vancouver Native Health Society has a mission to improve and promote the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of individuals, focusing on the Aboriginal community. Dennis lives in a room provided by the society.
I took a picture of Dennis and thanked him for sharing his story with me.
"Thank you for talking with me,” he said.
“It’s made me feel better.” I could see tears welling in his eyes.
“There’s things I’m trying to let go of. It helps to talk about it,” he said as he stood up. I asked if he wanted me to sit with him.
“No, that’s ok. Thank you.” I watched as he turned and walk away. Slowly. #notastranger