First Nations authors take on spirituality, alcoholism in Sask. workshop

Saskatoon's annual Word On the Street festival kicked off Sunday with a workshop by two authors who get to the heart of major issue: ailing First Nations people in the province.

Blair Stonechild and Harold Johnson host talk in Saskatoon

Crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson faces the issue of alcohol in Indigenous communities head on. (Courtesy of Harold R. Johnson)

Saskatoon's annual Word On the Street festival kicked off Sunday with a workshop by two authors who get to the heart of major issues ailing First Nations people in the province.

The one-day festival features a number of workshop presentations from poets, authors and lovers of literature.

Among them are Indigenous authors Blair Stonechild and Harold Johnson.

Their workshop presentation, titled Sharing the Journey and Living the Story, will touch on Stonechild's book, The Knowledge Seeker: Embracing Indigenous Spirituality, and Johnson's book, Fire Water: How Alcohol is Killing my People.

Stonechild's book focuses on reclaiming his Indigenous spirituality. He said he was motivated to write it after the Truth and Reconciliation report.

"As a residential school survivor I could relate to one of the areas that they had identified as an area of concern and that was something called spiritual abuse," said Blair. "In residential school I always remember feeling like something was missing, that what I was hearing was not really totally satisfying, that somehow there was something that wasn't being told to us."

When he started teaching at university, Stonechild said he realized that elders teach spirituality much differently. To learn it, you have to spend a lot of time with them, rather than sit through lectures in a school-like fashion.

"I think a lot of people maybe thought indigenous spirituality was just sort of like a lot of myths and that kind of stuff and ceremonies that people didn't really understand," he said. "Spirituality is a form of intelligence itself. It's kind of like a form of higher intelligence."

Stonechild said he's been invited to many churches and there has been lots of sincere interest in Indigenous spirituality.

'I just got tired of burying people'

Johnson's book focuses on the negative impact of alcohol in First Nations communities, which he said he's seen first hand far too often.

"I've dug so many graves that I don't need a measuring stick to know how deep six feet is," he said. "I just got tired of burying people."

Through research on the justice system, Johnson said he determined that 95 per cent of people were intoxicated at the time of their offense. He estimates that 50 per cent of deaths in northern Saskatchewan are related to alcohol.

Despite the staggering numbers, Johnson said nobody was talking about it.

Now, a northern alcohol strategy has been implemented and the communication lines are flowing through multiple northern communities.

"They are very open to having us come in the their community and change the story," Johnson said. "We're getting calls all the time from neighbouring communities who hear about what we're doing and want us to come to their community.

"Everybody wants to talk about it now."

Stonechild and Johnson led a workshop at the Brave New World Tent at 2:15 p.m. CST Sunday.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend