Celebrated Cree author Harold R. Johnson dead at 68

The Cree author and lawyer was a groundbreaking voice in Indigenous literature.

His acclaimed books include Firewater, Corvus and The Björkan Sagas

Harold R. Johnson was a lawyer and author. He died Wednesday at 68 years old. (House of Anansi)

Harold R. Johnson, an influential voice among Indigenous writers in Canada, has died, CBC Books has confirmed.

He died on Wednesday. He was 68 years old.

Johnson, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, was a lawyer and writer whose groundbreaking book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours) was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction. 

"The storyteller, trapper, father, brother, husband, uncle Harold R. Johnson took his final breath today and will continue the rest of his journey on to the other side. He was surrounded by his loved ones," according to a statement made by Johnson's family via Facebook. 

"At this time there will be no funeral service. Arrangements for a celebration of life will be communicated in the coming months. We ask that everyone gives our family some time and space to grieve. Thank you."

Johnson, whose most recent work was the 2021 book The Björkan Sagas, had recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

"Our time with Harold Johnson was too short. We will miss him dearly and send our deepest condolences to his loved ones," said House of Anansi, publisher of Johnson's books The Björkan Sagas and Cliffordin a prepared statement.

Becoming a writer

Johnson was born in 1954 in northern Saskatchewan to a Swedish father and a Cree mother. As an adult, Johnson enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and worked as a logger, trapper and miner before going to university.

He studied law and completed an MA at Harvard Law School where, on top of his studies, he wrote his first novel, Billy Tinker. He managed a private practice for several years before becoming a Crown prosecutor. 

"I wrote Billy Tinker more as a lark. I was just having fun and it turned into something. It wouldn't have been written if it wasn't for this writing group I was in with a couple other Canadians," he told The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers in 2022.

LISTEN | Harold R. Johnson speaks with Shelagh Rogers:

Harold R. Johnson talks to Shelagh Rogers about his life, his writing career and the lessons he's learned.

He was writing when he was four, but didn't publish until he was in his 40s.

The floodgates opened and he would have 11 books published, including Clifford, Peace and Good Order, Cry Wolf and the dystopian novel CorvusLonglisted for Canada Reads in 2019, the book depicts a world ravaged by climate change and war where people have migrated north to escape unlivable conditions. 

"I wanted to write about climate change, quite bluntly. The entire book is premised on what's going to happen and Corvus is my imagining of it. I had to put in some interesting science and characters to keep the reader engaged," he told CBC Books in 2019.

Firewater, an examination of alcohol consumption among Indigenous people in Canada, draws on Johnson's work as a Crown prosecutor and was inspired by the loss of his younger brother to a drunk driver. 

Johnson at the time said he wanted to create a new narrative about alcohol and Indigenous people, and the hardships drinking causes for many in Johnson's Cree community. 

During his 20 years as a lawyer and Crown prosecutor in Northern Saskatchewan, Johnson sent many Indigenous offenders to jail for crimes committed while drunk. This, he told CBC Radio's Piya Chattopadhyay in 2018, was not helping anyone and that Indigenous people should be able to take over justice in their own communities.

LISTEN | Harold R. Johnson speaks with Out in the Open:

During his 20 years as a lawyer and Crown prosecutor in Northern Saskatchewan, Harold Johnson sent many Indigenous offenders to jail for crimes committed while drunk. This, he says, was not helping anyone. He tells Piya why he now believes Indigenous people should be able to take over justice in their own communities.

"In my community, we don't want to talk about it publicly because we're afraid people are going to point their fingers at us and call us 'lazy, dirty, drunken Indians'," he would tell The Current in 2016.

"The writing just flowed out. It was effortless. When I got past the fear and sat down, it just poured out of me. I wanted to have a conversation with my brother. When I wrote it, the language in there is deliberate. There are no academic words in there because my brother wasn't an academic and I wanted to write to him in a language that he would understand," he told CBC Books in 2017. 

Stories are powerful

He told Rogers in 2020 that his storytelling approach evolved to reframe the narrative around Indigenous people. 

"Stories are extremely powerful. Stories can heal you, stories can kill you. So it's like placebo; I give you a sugar pill, I tell you it's medicine. If you take the pill and believe the story, 30 to 50 per cent of people experience a reduction in symptoms," he told The Next Chapter.

"Thinking about storytelling in a new way came out spontaneously in a conversation I was having. Somebody asked me a question and I said, 'We have to change the story we're telling ourselves.'

"I blew myself away with that. I then started thinking about story and took that idea home and sat on it for a long time."

    In one of his final interviews, he spoke with Rogers about his successes in his life and writing career.

    "What a ride, what a glorious ride that was! If you go far enough back, there's a little eight-year-old boy who lost his dad and was forced to go on welfare. I was this half-breed from northern Saskatchewan — nothing was expected from me except that I fail," Johnson said.

    "I'm at peace. But peace is at various levels. I have not found nirvana but I'm doing pretty damn good for an old trapper."

    Shelagh Rogers with Joan and Harold R. Johnson. (Charlie Cheffins)

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