High River Fiddler Craig West

Craig West, 42, reaches out in front of himself as he carefully shuffles his way to the living room of his High River home. The couch meets his reach, letting West know he’s arrived at his destination. Next, he searches for his violin case and once he locates it, unclasps the buckles, releasing his instrument from its hard shell retainer. A small grin lights up his face as the strings of the violin invite him to play a new song for a new day.

West’s fascination with the violin began quite a while ago. At the age of seven, while learning to read brail at an institute in Edmonton, West’s class was given the opportunity to try the piano and the violin. He was immediately hooked on the violin. Years later, West went on to get a diploma of music at Mount Royal University. He says at the time, he dreamed of playing concerts like violin greats Perlman and Zukerman. 

“Mount Royal was very performance driven and I loved it there. I had dreams of being in Carnegie hall, being a true virtuoso.”

Rather than fame, West pursued love. He now lives happily with his wife Angie, a stay-at-home mom, and his two musical daughters. His weekends are spent jamming with High River’s talented folk band, the Spitzee Post Band

“Craig’s so talented. He’s one of the best fiddle players I’ve seen. God gave him the talent that he has,” says Joe Gore, the leader of the band.

The Spitzee Post Band formed after the Alberta floods. Gore says West is vital to the group, and their popularity has been growing ever since West joined.

Craig West practices his scales at his home in High River. Although he misses his former house in Calgary, the community of High River has been very welcoming to him.

Photo by Nicholas AvilesBlind since birth, West’s musical career includes not only playing in the band, but also teaching violin to younger peers and playing gigs at retirement homes. He says he never wants to stop playing the violin.

While music is opening doors to new opportunities, it’s not paying all of the bills.

“It’s really hard to make money solely as a musician. I have to live off of AISH as well,” says West.

An Alberta government program, AISH, or assured income for the severely handicapped, provides West a monthly allowance, but it’s capped at less than $1,600. 

With no steady job in the family, the Wests have had to make sacrifices to make ends meet.

“In 2013, we lived in Calgary and before then, we were quite frankly pinching our pennies living in Calgary, and the rent is crazy there. It’s cheaper to live here, and so we moved,” says West.

Jung-Suk Ryu, the director of public affairs at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), notices the difference that leaders like Craig West make in the community.

“There are a lot of challenges that face individuals, but through the CNIB’s program, there are a lot of opportunities still out there. Clients like Craig are a shining example of what blind people can be if they choose to set their mind to it and choose a life of independence,” says Ryu.

A big challenge, however, is the stigma associated with vision loss and employment, says Ryu. A CNIB study showed that a third of working-age adults with vision loss in Canada are employed, and of those working, the research states, “Approximately half … with vision loss are struggling to make ends meet on $20,000 a year or less.”

Even still, Ryu has seen West and Canadians like him pursue what they can in life despite financial hardships. Organizations like the CNIB have tried to assure that assistance is available for those in the blind community trying to pursue arts or sports while living on AISH.

“Aside from driving, there really aren’t that many limitations for individuals who have vision loss,” says Ryu.

Craig West performs with his band at the Spitzee Post Bar and Grill in High River. The band is excited to play at the 2015 Calgary stampede.

Photo by Nicholas AvilesThe Spitzee Post Band is currently preparing to play at the Calgary Stampede this summer, as well as a number of folk festivals across the province. Although the financial future of West and his family remains uncertain, he hopes to continue his feeding his passion for violin. He says much of his optimism and perseverance has come from his love of God.

“God has opened up the door for what I’m doing now, which is playing at senior homes and for people around High River. This is what has been given to me,” says West.

 naviles@cjournal.ca