Alex Morrison is a little bit shaky, a little hesitant.
At first I think it’s because the Watson Lake Hotel is still in flames and he’s the one who bought it, as general manager of the Liard Development Corporation.
We’re having Saturday morning coffee in the Belvedere Hotel (which he also bought for the corporation) only hours after the historic hotel was gutted.
“I’m not good at public speaking,” he apologizes. “I’m going to tell you what I’ve been through if it can help others.”
Morrison is talking about his 30-year addiction to alcohol and drugs.
The Kaska have just launched an ambitious plan, Can You Hear the Drum Beat? Our Ten Year Vision for Health and Healing, to address an epidemic of substance abuse in their midst. In supporting it, Morrison has agreed to share his personal journey to hell and back.
“Five years ago I hit as low as you can go,” he begins slowly. “I ended up in detox after 30 years of addiction. Two days later, I had a set of twins born.
“Personally, for myself, like any other families growing up the ‘60s and ‘70s, there wasn’t much education about alcohol. It was socially acceptable.
“My father was a construction worker and I was born in Cassiar, BC. But we were always moving to chase the pipeline jobs and dams and the railway from Fort St. John to Dease Lake. I was brought up in an alcoholic home and didn’t know who I was.”
Sometimes Morrison visited his Kaska family in the Watson Lake area and got glimpses of the traditional ways from people like his uncle Fred Hasselberg.
As a young man, Morrison worked hard during Yukon summers and partied along with everyone else. In winter he’d collect unemployment insurance and live in Vancouver’s East End doing drugs and drinking. A lot of other Yukoners were already there waiting for him.
“You go to the East End, to Hastings Street, because you know you’re going to meet your associates from the Yukon. You kind of miss them and you know Yukoners are going to look after each other down there.”
Morrison’s brains and drive got him better jobs with various Yukon First Nations. He was a capital works director at Pelly Crossing and found money for projects.
But the addictions took control of his life. He felt like he was on a suicide mission. Eventually he was let go from his jobs because he became so unreliable.
The Kaska man had tried treatment six times already, but always relapsed. It was only when his partner Evangeline Billy was going to give birth that he got scared.
“We were both very unhealthy people, so the Yukon government Health and Social Services told us that the day the twins would be born they’d slap a sticker on them saying the parents were not responsible. They would take our babies away.
“They said, ‘If you guys want ‘em back, these are the hoops you’re going to have to jump through.’ Unfortunately their mother chose not to. She wanted very much to be a good mom, but she felt she couldn’t. I did whatever they told me and I give them credit for making sure the kids would be safe.”
The 45-year-old went into treatment for the seventh time, took parenting classes, took anger-management courses and was even interviewed by a psychiatrist from Edmonton.
“So I got custody of my kids. I had to forget about work for a year, take these courses and live in social housing. The ironic thing is my kids from my first family really supported me even though I was a wreck. So did my mom and Chief (Liard) McMillan.”
Billy, the mother of the twins, was murdered in downtown Whitehorse in the summer of 2008. She was very intoxicated at the time.
Morrison now follows the 12-Step program. He breaks the days into 24 segments to cope and often breaks the work day into minutes.
He’s also met a woman who helps raise the twins, and they’re doing well.
Sometimes he visits his uncle Fred and together they work outdoors for a while.
“One of the things he taught me is to try to keep busy in a good, productive way, try to accomplish something every day and look after yourself.”
But Morrison remains concerned about those still in the grips of addiction.
“We have so many excellent people that are where I was but don’t know how to get out. They probably step in the same hole again because, by nature, we always do the same things again. Change is one of the most difficult things.
“If I can change, anybody can change. You can come through some disaster situations to realize there’s help out there. Sometimes you’ve just got to hang on one more day, one more hour, and, if you do the next right thing you might be handed the gift of recovery.”