The Next Chapter

Harold R. Johnson on changing the narrative around alcohol in Indigenous communities

Author and lawyer Harold R. Johnson wrote Firewater to start an important conversation.
Crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson faces the issue of alcohol in Indigenous communities head on. (Courtesy of Harold R. Johnson)

Harold R. Johnson is a Harvard-educated lawyer and crown prosecutor who works in Northern Saskatchewan in Treaty 6 territory. He's also a fiction writer, a trapper and a member of the Montreal Lake Cree nation. His book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours) is a passionate call to action, and a lament for the lives he's seen destroyed by alcohol. He estimates alcohol abuse is the cause of half of the deaths in his community. Harold describes Firewaterwhich was shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction, as "a conversation between myself and my relatives, the Woodland Cree." 

Johnson spoke with Shelagh Rogers from Saskatoon. This interview originally aired in January 2017.

The alcohol story

The alcohol story touches absolutely everything, everywhere, it's constant all the time. I come out of justice, so that's where I saw it the most — 95 per cent of the people who showed up in court were intoxicated at the time they committed their offense. I have been a prosecutor for eight years, defense council before that, and I'd never met anybody I'd call a criminal. I just met people who got drunk and did something really stupid, up to and including committing atrocities. 

The story about alcohol is the lazy, dirty, drunken Indian story. It's been told about us since first contact, it's still being told today in the media. They've toned it down a bit but it's still being told. I had a young man on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan tell me that to be a real Indian you have to drink, so we take this horrible story about ourselves into ourselves and believe it. Whenever you tell stories about Aboriginal people as victims, you're turning us into victims. If we hear them over and over again, we get to believe them.

Aboriginal people have a treaty right to be protected from alcohol, but it's very hard to talk about. Just banning alcohol doesn't work, as many of the dry reserves are in rougher shape than reserves that allow alcohol. But we're all silent, we're silently sober. I'm trying to encourage those who are abstinent to speak up.

A cry from the heart

I'd buried a brother who had been killed by a drunk driver, and that was the second one. I was having trouble being a prosecutor, sending people to jail. Knowing that it was all just about alcohol, a lot of what I did was because I looked around and nobody else was doing it. The people come up and shake my hand, and say thank you for opening this up, thank you for getting this started. We have to change the story that we tell. I give this heartfelt presentation in communities and in schools, and after six months of that I was getting a little bit drained. I was going on holidays, and I was getting some gas in my truck before I left. A young man came to pump gas and said, "Hey, I know you, you were talking about changing the story — me and my friends, we figured out how we're going to change the story. We're not going to tell those party stories anymore, we're not going to tell stories about how we got so drunk, and we're especially not going to tell them in front of children. And this thing is going to stop with my generation." So it's things like that, that fill me back up.

I've been down in the graves too many times. In my community when someone dies the relatives dig the graves, and I've stood at the bottom with a shovel too many times. I don't want to do that anymore.

Harold R. Johnson's comments have been edited and condensed.