It goes against Harold Johnson’s culture to preach or to speak out before being invited to do so. With his new book, Firewater: How alcohol is killing my people (and yours), he turns his back on that advice. He can no longer silently stand by as alcohol kills one in two of his people in the Treaty 6 territory of Northern Saskatchewan.
Johnson grew up in Northern Saskatchewan, worked as a logger, miner, trapper, joined the Canadian Navy for a while and then attended Harvard Law School to eventually become a crown prosecutor. In each of these avenues, he saw and experienced the negative effects of alcohol on his life and those around him.
“I have now buried two brothers who were killed by drunk drivers. I cannot watch any longer as a constant stream of our relatives comes into the justice system because of the horrible things they did to each other while they were drunk. The suffering caused by alcohol, the kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the violence, the poverty, the abandoned children, the mental wards and the emergency rooms, the injuries and illness and the loss of hope and the suicides have all piled up within me to the point I must speak.”
In Firewater, nominated for a 2016 Governor General’s award for non-fiction, Johnson uses the notion of storytelling to take on the stereotype of the “drunken Indian.” Humans base their understanding of the world and form ideas about how to behave through story. That is, if we see alcohol as a necessary part of every celebration, or as antidote to any problem, it has an impact on our actions.
He talks about alcohol in relation to historical treaty signing, to models of victimhood, to community destruction, and to incarceration rates. And he proposes that to overcome this massive problem, his people need to start speaking up about sobriety. “I propose that the only way forward is to take full responsibility for ourselves and our present position and begin to tell a new story about ourselves.”
This is a small, but thought-provoking book that will make you want to engage with the author. I don’t agree with all that I read, and have questions such as how kiciwamanawak (roughly translated as white Canadian settlers) can be given the same freedom to shed labels and change their story.
Happily, Johnson will be in Penticton for two nights next week. On Monday, Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. (Okanagan College Penticton campus lecture theatre, PL107) Johnson will discuss his book and his role as crown prosecutor in Northern Saskatchewan. On Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. ( Okanagan College Penticton campus community hall, PC113) Johnson will read from Firewater, other works of fiction, and discuss his writing life. The events are free, and all are welcome to attend.