Harold R. Johnson wants to bring the issue of alcohol in Indigenous communities 'into the light'

Harold R. Johnson is a Harvard-educated lawyer, former crown prosecutor, author and traditional trap line operator. This week on Checkup, Johnson spoke with host Duncan McCue about his book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours).
'This isn’t an Aboriginal problem — it’s a global problem, it’s a Canadian problem,' Harold R. Johnson says about the high alcohol-related death rate. (Courtesy of Harold R. Johnson)
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Harold R. Johnson is a Harvard-educated lawyer, former crown prosecutor, author and traditional trap line operator.

During Checkup's show on the dangers of alcohol, Johnson spoke with host Duncan McCue from his home in La Ronge, Sask., about his book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours).

During his time as a crown prosecutor Johnson said that the majority of criminal cases brought to court were related to alcohol intoxication. He also estimates that around half of the people in his community are dying from alcohol abuse.

Johnson says it is important to confront harmful stereotypes, and bring the issue of alcohol in Indigenous communities out in the open in order to address the problem head on.

"The people will fix it themselves once they start talking about it. Bring it out into the open and they'll find the solutions," he said.


Harold R. Johnson: I am estimating that the death rate from alcohol in this territory [is] one in two. The leading cause of death in northern Saskatchewan right now is injury, at 24.3 per cent.

We did a study at the [hospital] emergency in La Ronge, and found that injuries and self-harm 84 per cent of the time were related to alcohol. Twenty per cent of all deaths here are directly related to alcohol and that's just at the injury level, we're not talking the disease part of alcohol.

Duncan McCue: You were a former crown prosecutor — you also estimated that 95 per cent of the criminal cases you were witnessing in court involved people who were intoxicated. How did the situation become so intractable?

HRJ: I was a defence council first and then a crown prosecutor, so I've been practicing now for 20 years. I can't say I've met anybody who was criminal. All I met were people who got drunk and did something really stupid up to and including committing an atrocity.

The justice system fails to look at alcohol. We just keep putting people in jail, adding to the trauma, not resolving the traumas that are in the community.

DM: You're talking about the trauma in Indigenous communities in particular — were you hesitant at all because of the prevalence of that stereotype of the drunken Indian? Were you hesitant to write this book and to talk about the challenges, the prevalence of alcohol in the communities you were serving?
'I got up from my computer so many times, and walked away, and said: Harold you can’t say that.' Harold R. Johnson on writing Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours). (University of Regina Press)

HRJ: I got up from my computer so many times, and walked away, and said, "Harold you can't say that."

And then thought about all of the people that I know who died because of alcohol and forced myself to go sit back down and continue writing it.

We have to address it. We can't ignore the fact that we've got such a high death rate here.

This isn't an Aboriginal problem — it's a global problem, it's a Canadian problem. Everything that happens in the western world, when it gets to Indian country it gets magnified. So small pox, when it got here, look at the damage that it did.

We've got alcohol, the damages are just magnified. Fentanyl is coming, HIV/AIDS, when it gets into our community it gets out of control.

We've got to start talking about it. We've got to start doing something about it, we can't wait, we can't pretend it isn't there.

This isn't an Aboriginal problem — it's a global problem, it's a Canadian problem.- Harold R. Johnson

DM: Why are people pretending there isn't alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities?

HRJ: We're not. I made a big mistake when I wrote Firewater. I said that Indian people can't talk about the lazy dirty drunken Indian or Indians and alcohol because they're scared people will point at them and say, "See? It's true, they are lazy dirty drunks."

White people can't talk about alcohol because they're afraid somebody will point at them and call them racist.

And I was wrong.

I go into Aboriginal communities and talk to leadership and they want to talk about it. They want to do something about it.

DM: One of the positive options you're suggesting in your book is to turn communities into treatment centres and support sober houses as a place of refuge. There has been an awful lot of work done in Indian country on creating treatment centres. What kind of things are working?

HRJ: The treatment centre model has not worked. The success rate of the models that we're using now are about two to five per cent. And that's not helping.

The problem isn't alcoholism, it isn't the people who are obsessive-compulsive drinkers. Alcohol use is on a spectrum from completely abstinent to the obsessive-compulsive.

Seventy per cent of the alcohol in this country is consumed by 20 per cent of the consumers. But 50 per cent of the harms are caused by people who are not obsessive compulsive-drinkers.

You don't have to be an alcoholic to drink too many and get behind the wheel of a car and drive and kill somebody. You don't have to be an alcoholic to think that your wife's best friend is somebody you should have sex with and ruin your family and your marriage.

DM: What other solutions would you recommend?

HRJ: Let's just bring it out into the light and start talking about it. I don't want to offer solutions or tell anybody what to do.

We've had lots of people coming into our communities with the answers, and telling us, "These are the solutions. We're going to fix it for you."

The people will fix it themselves once they start talking about it. Bring it out into the open and they'll find the solutions.

DM: You do say that in a lot of Indigenous communities what happens is kind of a victim narrative, in terms of blaming the Canadians for the trauma. How much of that needs to change in terms of trying to tackle the underlying causes of alcoholism?

HRJ: When we start blaming colonialism, residential schools, etc., we sound like a couple of kids arguing about who started it. What we've got to do is face the problem that we have. Look at the death rate and start doing something today. It doesn't matter who started it.

Residential schools were horrible places, no doubt about it. Colonization was really rugged for Aboriginal people to get through. But we're here now. And looking back and trying to blame somebody for where we are isn't getting us anywhere and it actually makes the problem worse, because we spend our energy, or waste our energy, arguing about who started it.

All comments have been edited and condensed for clarity. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This online segment was prepared by Ieva Lucs on Dec. 11, 2017.