The Next Chapter

Why Harold R. Johnson's writing explores the nature of story and changing the narrative

The writer and former Crown prosecutor from Montreal Lake Cree Nation spoke with Shelagh Rogers about new approaches to storytelling.
Harold R. Johnson is a writer and retired lawyer. (House of Anansi)

Harold R. Johnson is a Canadian author of fiction and nonfiction. Born and raised in northern Saskatchewan, he is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, a graduate of Harvard Law School and managed a private practice for several years before becoming a Crown prosecutor.

In 2020, he released two nonfiction books: in Peace and Good OrderJohnson makes the case that Canada is failing to fulfil its legal duty to deliver justice to Indigenous people, and in Cry Wolfhe explores the mythology of wolves around the 2005 case of University of Waterloo student Kenton Carnegie, who was killed in a wolf attack in northern Saskatchewan.

Johnson spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his current approach to story and storytelling.

A new look at story, in fiction and nonfiction

"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. 

"The more I thought about the story, the more I realized that absolutely everything is a story — I am a story, you are story, the universe is a story. All these things that we've come to believe in are just things that we made up.

We've come to believe this story that we were victims of colonization. But there's other stories. Every story has another story to it.​​​​​​

"Colonization, and this powerful story of the Aboriginal people as victims of colonisation, is told not about us as much as to us.

"We've come to believe this story that we were victims of colonization. But there's other stories. Every story has another story to it."

Harold R. Johnson talks to Shelagh Rogers about his latest book Clifford.

The connection between story and culture

"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. 

"Stories can heal. Stories can kill. I'll give you the exact same sugar pill this time, the story I tell you is that it's poison. If you take the pill and believe the story, you're going to get sick. You could possibly die.

Stories are extremely powerful. Stories can heal you, stories can kill you.

"Take this story: there's a young man who took 29 pills that he thought were antidepressants. His heart rate went down, his blood pressure went down. He required medical intervention to stay alive.

"They had him on intravenous and he didn't recover — until they told him that all he had taken were sugar pills. Stories can kill."

The idea of Indigenous justice

"The question of redemption is the wrong question. The question is, 'What's the story? What is the story that we tell ourselves that we call justice?'

"Justice doesn't exist. It's a story that we made up. A wolf kills an elk. There's no revenge. There is nothing just about it. It just happens. There's nothing in nature that is we can call justice.

"Going along with that story of justice and judgment day is this idea of deterrence, that if you do something wrong and I punish you for that, you will learn your lesson and you won't do it again — and people who see you being punished won't do it. And that doesn't work. 

Justice doesn't exist. It's a story that we made up.

"We know that if we send someone to jail, we incarcerate someone, they are more likely to commit offences when they get out than if we didn't incarcerate them. We began incarcerating Aboriginal people around 1960. Before that, we incarcerated people of Eastern European ancestry or French. The Canadian justice system has always been racist."

Harold R. Johnson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now