The Current

Indigenous people need to tell their stories of sobriety, says lawyer

Harold R. Johnson is an Indigenous crown prosecutor and says alcohol is killing his people. He is urging for a new narrative on alcohol abuse, finding inspiration in those who overcome rather than thinking there are only those who succumb.
Indigenous people need a new story around alcohol, says Firewater author Harold R. Johnson. (Courtesy of Harold R. Johnson)

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There's a difficult conversation Harold R. Johnson wants to start — a new narrative about alcohol and Indigenous people, and the hardships drinking causes for many in Johnson's Cree community.

Johnson is setting out to combat the centuries-old stereotype of the "drunken Indian." He says it's an image with colonialist roots — but one which many Indigenous people have internalized.

"I had a kid on one of the reserves tell me...that to be a real Indian you have to drink," Johnson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Johnson approaches this subject with experience — as a crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan's Treaty 6 territory — and he says the first step forward is to acknowledge hard truths. 

"If we don't talk about it, it's just going to continue," says Johnson. He has written his book, Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (And Yours), hoping to start a conversation that he considers long overdue.

"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'."

But he says he can no longer stay silent. Two of Johnson's own brothers have been killed by drunk drivers. 

"I've buried two brothers. I've buried many relatives. I'm not speaking figuratively — I've dug graves."

Johnson estimates that one out of every two deaths in the Treaty 6 Territory is alcohol-related — and from talking to leaders in the communities, he's afraid that estimate is low.

He tells Tremonti that the people who need to be part of this discussion publicly are the 35 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada who don't drink at all — who are silently sober.

"I am trying to encourage those silently sober to speak up."

Johnson says he isn't bringing all the solutions to the table — he thinks Indigenous communities have the answers, if only the conversation gets rolling. 

"I firmly believe the solution is talking about it."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.