Books·How I Wrote It

Harold Johnson wants to talk about alcohol in his Indigenous community

Harold R. Johnson talks about battling through fear to write his book Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours).
Harold R. Johnson was a finalist for the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction. (University of Regina Press)

In both his personal and professional life, Cree lawyer Harold R. Johnson has witnessed too many lives ruined by alcohol in his Saskatchewan community. The loss of his younger brother to a drunk driver has inspired his new book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (And Yours), which is nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award. 

In his own words, Johnson describes how he came to be a writer and the process behind this powerful book.

Searching for purpose

"I follow the Red Road. I go to sweat lodge ceremonies, to sun dances and go sit up on a hill and pray. I started this about 25 years ago and the man I started with is getting quite old. In our tradition, and everybody has a different way of doing it, but in our tradition when you've done your seventh vision quest, you have the right to run sweat lodge ceremonies for your community. I wanted to do it with the man I started with, but he lived up in the Yukon. So I went up there and did a vision quest. I sat on a mountain up there and I looked at the Yukon River for a few days. No food. No water. Just prayed. When I came off the hill, my friend gave me shit, the way an elder can. He told me, "You've been coming around now for 25 years. You've been learning things. Take what you've learned and get to work." So what I'm going to do?"

Turning to writing after tragedy

"I come home. I'm a writer. I'll write a book. What about? And then my kid brother gets killed by a drunk driver. I've been a crown prosecutor for eight years, and a defence counsellor before that, practicing criminal law, and never saw any criminals. Just people who got drunk and did stupid things, up to and including committing atrocities. So I started writing it and it took off from there. It had a life of its own.

"There are many deaths. Many, many. This book writing turned into something else. We tried to hold community meetings last winter to get people to talk. Whenever we scheduled community meetings we had to adjourn it because the building we were using was needed for a wake or funeral. Many of those wakes or funerals were for people who died from alcohol."

Overcoming fear

"I got up from my computer and I walked away. Do you want to do this? Do you know what you're doing? Do you know what you're opening up? Do you know how things are going to unfold if you do this? And I'd walk away and turn around and come back and sit down and write through all the hard parts.

"I had to. This wasn't a book I wanted to write. It feels like a book I had to write because nobody else was talking about it. I firmly believe if we don't talk about it, if we don't bring it out in the open, it's never going to solve itself.

"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.

"Thirteen months from when I sat down to write it, I had a copy in my hand. I thought, 'What have you done? What have you opened up?'"

Starting a conversation

"When I was told when I was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award, my first emotion was fear. Because that's big. Everything changes. Did I just put this incredible life that I've built for myself somehow on the line? I go forward, despite the fear.

"I'm glad that I got it done, but it isn't finished. It is the opening of a conversation. The hard work starts now. I guess I'm just not going to be quiet about it."

Harold Johnson's comments have been edited and condensed.

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