A passionate call to action

Harold Johnson’s new book examines the history of alcohol and indigenous people. Johnson, a Cree lawyer, is far from stupid. But when he was younger, working as a logger and a miner across Northwestern Canada, he had to prove it.

A passionate call to action
Photo provided by Harold Johnson
Harold Johnson’s new book examines the history of alcohol and indigenous people.

Johnson, a Cree lawyer, is far from stupid. But when he was younger, working as a logger and a miner across Northwestern Canada, he had to prove it.

“There was a story going around that if you drove a haul truck you were stupid, so to prove I wasn’t stupid I quit the mines to go to university and picked the hardest thing they had,” he says.

He graduated with his JD from the University of Saskatchewan in 1995, but that wasn’t good enough.

There’s another story, he says, that if you’re an “Indian” they just give you bachelor’s degrees — you don’t earn them. To prove that he hadn’t received his law degree just because he was aboriginal, Johnson took the next logical step in 1996.

“I went to Harvard and got my Master’s Degree in the law,” he says, adding he got into the law “by default.” At the time, he knew someone who had gone there — now he knows of four aboriginal people from Saskatchewan who attended the prestigious American university — so it was a natural choice for him.

Perhaps an unintended consequence, he adds, was that “for 20 years I was stuck being a lawyer.”

Johnson grew up in a small community of trappers and fishers, so he says he knew he could be one of those. But then someone from his community came back from abroad and “brought back stories so I knew I could go into the military because I heard his stories,” Johnson says. He joined the Canadian Navy at 17, and when he returned to his small town in Northern Saskatchewan, “my older brothers had been loggers and miners so I heard from them about logging and mining” and so, until law school, he worked in those jobs with them.

Following his degree from Harvard, he returned to Saskatchewan and after completing his articling, Johnson worked for five years at the Canadian Union of Public Employees as in-house counsel, practising exclusively labour law in Regina. He then moved back again to his hometown of La Ronge, Sask. and worked in research for a couple of years, then opened a private practice until the recession of 2008. Johnson saw there was an opening as a Crown prosecutor and opted for the guaranteed salary in an uncertain time.

Was he tempted to stay in the United States after he graduated?

“I thought about staying,” Johnson admits. “But I love being home too much.”

Home is important to him, and Johnson worked hard to maintain some traditional aspects of his heritage, including living and — when time, weather and fur prices permit — working his family’s trap line.

“There’s definitely that balance between the two worlds,” he says, but he manages to maintain it. “I live 50 miles away from my office, on my trap line, so most days that road is a really nice drive. It’s sort of a back road. By the time I get home, nothing from the office has survived. I’ve got a really good separation between work and home.”

Johnson says he’s always been a writer — he could read and write before he started school. He grew into “your typical teenage poet,” he says.

“I believed 13-year-old poets could save the world.”

While working in the mining camp, Johnson was writing short stories, working on his craft, he says. “I knew what I was doing — I was practising.”

When he got to Harvard, he recognized a friend from the University of Saskatchewan — Kate Sutherland, who now teaches law and literature at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. She had a writer’s group and invited Johnson to join.

“So I went, and every Sunday we met at a little pub,” Johnson remembers. “Each week, I brought another chapter to my first novel Billy Tinker and it went over really well; it was a really good group that encouraged each other.”

With his latest work, Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours), his reason for writing a book on the subject of aboriginals and alcohol is simple: “Nobody else was speaking up about it.”

In his role as Crown prosecutor, Johnson saw “95 per cent of the people who came to court were intoxicated at the time they committed the offence they were judged with. We were dealing with an alcohol problem and not criminality.”

His motivation stems from a more personal place as well. Johnson, one of nine children, lost two brothers to drunk drivers. This was not uncommon in his area, he notes, saying he was at a restaurant near his home one day with four random people, and when he brought up his brothers’ deaths, three out of the four people had also lost siblings to a drunk driver.

It’s not just drinking and driving, he says, adding that in the community there are “people who drink themselves to death, people killed or injured in accidents.”

The book has been well received in both his indigenous community and the legal community. Johnson says he hasn’t heard a negative response yet. Firewater, a 2016 finalist in the Governor General’s Literary Awards, is described as “a passionate call to action” and looks at the history of alcohol and the impact it’s had on indigenous people, from the perspective of Johnson as a Crown prosecutor in Treaty 6 territory.

“When I first heard it, it scared me that it had been nominated,” Johnson says. “I had been sitting in my cabin writing and [the books] haven’t gone very far beyond Saskatchewan. It’s been good and I enjoyed it and I like writing, I’ve got this little thing going on, and I knew when I got nominated that was all going to change and I wasn’t going to be a little writer anymore.”

The extent of the impact of his book’s nomination will be clearer with the next novel he publishes, he says. His most recent book — what he describes as “an autobiography science fiction” — is with his agent for a final read through before it is submitted to publishers, but he adds one publisher has expressed interest already.

One of the brothers lost to a drunk driver was a scientist and to honour him “since he loved science fiction so much I wrote his, and my, life story as science fiction,” Johnson says.

Alhough he has donned many hats in his life, perhaps his greatest role yet is one he’s been developing in the last year or so.

As a Crown prosecutor, Johnson says his circuit is the far north of Saskatchewan — “right up against the Northwest Territories border” — and in 2015, Saskatchewan Deputy Minister Responsible for Corrections and Policing Dale McFee came to see what happens on the ground. McFee spent the day with the probation officer, and 35 of the 36 people who reported to her identified alcohol as the problem. Heading back to the airplane at the end of the day, Johnson spoke to McFee about it.

“I explained that this is an Indian problem and we have to solve it, and we have to change the story we tell ourselves about it,” Johnson remembers. “He said, ‘What can government do to help?’ I said give me a six-month leave of absence and I’ll show you. I got the six-month leave of absence.”

With a small team — including his wife, Joan — Johnson has been “working at creating community alcohol plans for the communities of La Ronge and Montreal Lake, and we’ve just recently started working in another community.” The work on the plans belongs to them — not to Johnson, not to the government, he says.

The six months was extended — they’ve been working on the Northern Alcohol Strategy for just more than a year now — and Johnson notes he retires this August.

“I will never be back in the courtroom,” he says, but adds he doesn’t understand the word “relax.” Johnson anticipates writing a lot more and working toward the Northern Alcohol Strategy’s goal, although on a part-time basis.

“It is too important — we have gone into communities and raised people’s hopes,” he explains.

Between Firewater and his work with the Northern Alcohol Strategy, Johnson hopes to spark a conversation around what can be a controversial issue.

He says there’s such a thing as a “nocebo” effect — as opposed to a placebo effect — where unlike a placebo story, a nocebo story is harmful. Johnson thinks part of the problem is by repeating exclusively that Canada’s aboriginals are “victims of colonization, that we are victims of residential schools, that we are victims of the Indian Act we are in fact making things worse.

“We have to be careful telling those stories and perhaps balance them with the positive stories that are out there. When was the last time you heard 35 per cent of aboriginal people don’t use alcohol at all, are completely abstinent and that there are twice as many of us who are completely abstinent than in the general population? That story also needs to be told.”

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