Oct 062016

It is my pleasure to alert you to this interview and to Harold’s book, “Firewater”.  I am looking forward to reading it.

Harold is an unassuming intelligence.  We haven’t talked much, I don’t know him well,  but here once again I find myself wishing there were more Harold Johnsons in our midst.  He makes good sense; we would be more sane.

Indigenous people need a new story around alcohol, says Firewater author Harold R. Johnson.

Indigenous people need a new story around alcohol, says Firewater author Harold R. Johnson. (Courtesy of Harold R. Johnson)

Listen 23:50

Read story transcript    (the transcript is copied below, in case the link becomes invalid.)

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.

Firewater bookcover

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.

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

Guests: Harold R. Johnson

AMT: Still to come there are some disruptive technologies Uber, AirBnB, that leave entire industries forever changed. And then there’s the disruptive medical technology that could forever change your own idea of who we are. We’ll hear about some breakthroughs in the meeting of mind and machine in about half an hour. But first, the bottle and the damage done.


To see a house full of drunken Indians consisting of men, women and children is a most unpleasant sight. For in that condition, they often wrangle, pull each other by the hair and fight. That sometimes 10 or 12 of both sexes may be seen fighting each other promiscuously, until at last they all fall on the floor one upon another, some spilling rum out of a small kettle or dish which they hold in their hands, while others are throwing up what they’ve just drunk.

AMT: That historic journal entry from the fur trader Daniel Williams Harmon dates back to the early 19th century. Yet here in the 21st century, the author and lawyer Harold R. Johnson includes it in his new book about Indigenous people and alcohol. The anecdote shows just how long the pernicious stereotype of the so-called quote, drunken Indian has been with us. But Harold R. Johnson includes that uncomfortable anecdote for another reason, precisely because it’s hard to hear. It’s difficult to talk about alcohol and the hardships it still causes many Indigenous communities today, and yet it’s a subject Harold R. Johnson approaches with experience as a Crown Prosecutor in Treaty 6 territory. And with the conviction that the first step forward must meet to acknowledge hard truth. He’s a graduate of the Harvard Law School. He’s a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation. His book is entitled Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People and Yours. Harold R. Johnson joins us from Saskatoon. Hello.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: Good morning Anna-Maria.

AMT: Why does this story, as you call it the quote, dirty lazy drunken Indian story, have so much power even today?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: It’s never gone away. It has been a constant, since first contact through the residential school era, all through colonialism. It is still being repeated. We’ve internalized it, made the story our own. Our own people believe the story. I had a kid on one of the reserves tell me just a couple of years ago that to be a real Indian you have to drink.

AMT: Hmm. Well, I want to talk about the people in your community and your community is Treaty 6 area in northern Saskatchewan, right?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: That’s correct. The Woodland Cree signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 in 1889.

AMT: And how many people in the Treaty 6 community roughly?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: I’m estimating about 20, 25,000 people.

AMT: OK, because you write specifically about people in your community. What do you hear from people in that community, the Treaty 6 community, about how they view their relationship to alcohol?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: I had an elder give me a call when he heard that I was starting to work on this and he wanted me to know about drinking in the La Ronge area. He told me that back in the forties and fifties there was some drinking, sometimes an Indian would sell their treaty rights so they could legally go in the bar. And sometimes other Indians would ask them to buy beer for them. But it was a sometimes thing. I checked with other elders and that seems consistent. This first elder told me that real drinking didn’t start until 1966 with the opening of the Anglo-Rouyn mine north of town. And the miners came to town and had a party on the reserve 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And the entire purpose was to get Indian women drunk. There was another party going on at the same time, the smoke jumpers, and again they only invited women to their parties. And the elder told me that if any man showed up at those parties, there was usually a fight so they just quit going. There was a third group of people preying on Aboriginal women at that time, the American tourists were flying in on private planes. They didn’t bring their families with them but they brought the hard liquor. That’s where people remember seeing rum and whiskey and vodka for the first time. If you want to destroy a people, you destroy the women first.

AMT: You have calculated the rate of alcohol related deaths in your community. What have you found?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: My estimate is one in two. And it’s based on the leading cause of death in my territory right now is injury. So that’s car accidents, ski doo accidents, drownings, stabbings, shootings, beatings, house fires, suicide, freezing to death. And we know that that’s all alcohol. The second leading cause of death is heart disease and we know that binge drinking causes heart disease. And all those guys my age who didn’t shut it down or continue to binge drink are now falling over dead of heart attacks. And the third leading cause of death is cancer. And we know that alcohol causes all sorts of cancers. Add to that children who don’t get proper nutrition because their parents are drinking. Add to that alcohol and FASD, and add to that alcohol attacks the immune system and people who drink too much have what is referred to as failure to thrive. Put all of those together, and my estimate is one in two. And I’m afraid that that estimate is low. I was in a community last winter, it’s a community of 880 people. A minister stood up at the meeting and said we had 66 funerals here in 2015 and 60 of them were because of alcohol.

AMT: Hmm. But those are your calculations, are there numbers available like that? Has anyone looked at this, like, the way you did?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: I can’t get the numbers. I’m trying to get the numbers. We know in justice, where I spent a lot of time that 95 per cent of the people who come to court were intoxicated at the time of their offense. But when you look at the numbers, alcohol is so natural, normal and necessary in our society that people don’t write it down. It’s not recorded. You look at the police records and you can’t find that number there because the police don’t write it down because it’s so normal. The same thing in health care.

AMT: And you make the point in your book that it’s just assumed that at an arrest or at an emergency health–


AMT: How has alcohol affected you and your family?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: I’ve buried two brothers. I’ve buried many relatives. I’m not speaking figuratively, I’ve dug graves. My father died when I was eight years old. He died of a heart attack. I have two childhoods. My father and mother didn’t drink in the first eight years of my life. There was rarely any alcohol in our home. My father died, circumstances changed. Alcohol became much more prevalent in the second half of my childhood.

AMT: You’ve outlined theories about how Indigenous people can move forward and away from alcohol that is killing so many people. You talk about victim, grief, and trauma models and you have a problem with them. Take me through. You’ve got a couple of models, let’s start there. The victim, grief, and trauma models. What have you observed and what are you thinking?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: So this victim’s story, to tell us that the reason that Aboriginal people are in the situation that they’re in is because of a history of colonization, that it’s because of residential school, that it’s because of government policy, that it’s all of these things that are outside of our control are killing us. Placebo and nocebo. We know placebo, if I give you a sugar pill and tell you that this is medicine and it’s going to make you feel better if you take it, 35 to 50 per cent of people experience a reduction in symptoms. The same thing occurs with nocebo. And in this case I give you a sugar pill and tell you that it’s poison and it’s going to make you sick. And if you take it, you’re probably going to get sick. That’s the power of story. So a nocebo story, and that’s what it is, is the story that heals you or kills you. I’m not saying that residential school wasn’t real. That was real, that happened, but we can’t fix it. We can’t go back and change residential school and to be told these stories over and over again is just making it worse.

AMT: Well there’s another example to use. The widely held understanding that alcoholism is a disease. What problems do you see with that?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: We keep being told that alcoholism is a disease. When you check into it, disease is a metaphor for what they’re seeing, it’s not like smallpox. Smallpox killed many of us, alcohol is killing just about as many now. But alcohol doesn’t work the same as smallpox or TB. I see alcohol more like a repetitive strain injury. You use it too often, too much and you injure yourself. It changes the way that you look at it. If addiction is a disease, then there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s God’s will that I got it. If alcoholism is an injury that I did to myself, then I can change it. If I tell myself, if I do this too often and too much I can hurt myself, I might change the way that I drink. It’s in the story that we tell ourselves.

AMT: Is the key problem you see in Indigenous communities actually alcoholism or is it binge drinking?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: It’s binge drinking. What I saw in the courts was 15 to 20 per cent of the people who came to court were obsessive compulsive drinkers. 80 to 85 per cent of people who came to court just drank too much that one time and did something really stupid, up to and including committing an atrocity. If we’re looking just at addictions, we’re looking at just a small portion of it.

AMT: Well, and I want to take a little further look into the justice system, because that’s the other model. You talk about the law enforcement model of how drunkenness or alcoholism is treated by the system. Talk to me about what you see?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: If we go back in the common law, we find a statement that says He who killeth while drunk, sober shall hang. So we’ve got lots of experience with alcohol and crime, and I am still prosecuting people who got drunk and killed each other. The justice system is a complete failure. It is not going to solve our problems with alcohol. And that is our major problem.

AMT: And you see those cases where people get drunk and kill each other, but you see other cases where people misbehave because of drunkenness and then have the book thrown at them, am I correct?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: That happens. I was talking with a defense lawyer a little while ago and we were talking about murders and alcohol and I asked them how many murders have you defended where alcohol wasn’t involved? And he remembered one. And as a prosecutor I could remember doing one that didn’t involve alcohol. And we were walking away and he said, but with regard to sex assault, I don’t remember any, and I don’t remember any either. With sex assault, it was always alcohol was involved.

AMT: And so how do you think the justice system needs to change to deal with that?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: There is a model out of South Dakota called 24/7 that needs to be looked at a lot more closely. That 24/7 program out of South Dakota, if you are on an order for driving under the influence or domestic violence involving alcohol, you are required to attend at a police station twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, and blow into a breathalyzer. If you fail to show up or you have alcohol in your system, you go to jail automatically for up to two days. So immediate detection, immediate consequences. The breach rate for both failing to attend and for having alcohol in the system is less than 1 per cent. I would love to see a breach rate of less than 1 per cent. So it works. And what’s really amazing about the 24/7 program is the Rand Institute went and studied it and they found that there were positive health results. The death rate from alcohol in South Dakota is down because of the 24/7 program. And they were able to show that because each county went into the program at different times, so they’re able to trace it across the state. If we could do that in Canada, where it probably going to require legislative change.

AMT: And you’re speaking, of course, as both a crown prosecutor and a member of the Indigenous community, thinking this could actually move something forward.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: Maybe we could do something positive with law.

AMT: Well, let me ask you. Has there been enough discussion in your community about the problems caused by alcohol?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: No, we’re trying to open up the conversation. Let’s talk about it. Let’s bring it out into the light and talk about it. It’s really hard for white people to talk about Indians and alcohol, because the fear that someone is going to point a finger at them and call them racist. The opposite occurs in my community, where 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. I firmly believe that the solution is in bringing it out and talking about it. And the people will find the answers. I’m not offering a whole bunch of solutions. I’m not going to go and tell my people you have to do a, b, c, and things will get better. We’ve had people come into our communities forever telling us how to do things and having solutions for us. And then they leave and the solutions don’t work. The solutions will come from the people, but we have to have a conversation first.

AMT: Well, so how can we talk about the problems caused by alcohol in Indigenous communities without falling into the trap of racist remarks, or the again, the quote, the drunken Indian stereotype. By being honest, just courageously going forward and talking about it. We don’t have to use race as part of it. What I’m seeing in northern Saskatchewan is that the severe problems started in 1966. So this happened on my watch, this is in my lifetime that it’s changed. There’s a history of alcohol in white culture that goes back thousands of years, the same problems exist in white culture. I’ve seen statistics that say that 25 per cent of deaths worldwide are because of alcohol. So this isn’t an Indian problem. It’s amplified in my communities, but it’s not our problem.

AMT: And why are you speaking out?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: Because nobody else is. I don’t want to talk about this. I’ve got a whole bunch of things I’d love to do. I’d love to be writing fiction. I’d love to be trapping and fishing and doing all of the things that I really enjoy doing, but nobody else is talking about it. And if we don’t talk about it, it’s just going to continue and I’m just tired of digging graves.

AMT: In your book you include a letter from an author and an Indigenous law professor by the name of Tracey Lindberg, talking about sobriety and her own sobriety. Let’s listen to her reading parts of that letter.


TRACEY LINDBERG: I stopped drinking about 25 years ago. Until then I engaged in what was quite likely binge drinking. My relationship with booze began in grade eight. Boys with licenses picked up girls without and gave us alcohol. My first drink was vodka. By the time I went to graduate school, I was drinking or bingeing two days a week. By the time I was practicing law, three days a week, at least. In the practice of law and as the only Indigenous person in the firm that I worked for, alcohol became the lubricant through which I could unpeel my layer of Other and become one with the firm. It was me and I made a choice and the choice was to make friends through boozing with them. I made a decision because I love to drink. I made a decision because I needed to drink. This I knew was going to get harder and harder to do as time went by. This I also knew was a choice at that time, a luxury, the choice to stop. But in the future it might not be something I could stop. So I stopped. I continued going to ceremonies, I felt good. I quit drinking entirely. I felt better. And I had to learn how to socialize. I’m still not good at it without alcohol. Had to learn to hug without alcohol. Had to define and parse my spare time without alcohol. I do miss the denizens of the bars I haunted. Do miss that easy drunky friendship amongst drunken strangers. I miss the excitement of music in small rooms, yelled conversations and weird semi-hallucinatory observations. The nation that I work with never required that I quit. I quit because they don’t drink. Because I wanted no one to have to pay my way in ceremony but me. Because I wanted to be a sober advocate for them, because I wanted to be free. Freedom is walking away and doing better. I’m free.

AMT: That is Tracey Lindberg reading her own words. Harold R. Johnson, why is it important to hear her story?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: We need all of the artists to tell sober stories. We need to bring back all of the Wisakedjak and [unintelligible] stories, all of those traditions, in a way that helps people to change the story that we tell ourselves.

AMT: So in other words when you have so many people who are not drinking, they need to share that so others can know that?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: There’s a statistic that’s rarely mentioned, 35 per cent of Aboriginal people in Canada don’t drink at all. We are completely abstinent, but we are silently sober. I am trying to encourage those silently sober to speak up. Show what it’s like to walk a sober life.

AMT: And you also suggest the idea of sober houses. How would that work?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: This is something that came out of our discussions last winter. What we learned when we’re asking questions, what was the hardest part about sobering up? We were told, I lost all my friends or I found out who my real friends were. And we take people out of our communities and we send them off to detox centres and rehab centres, and they come back into the communities and they come back to the same house, the same families, the same situation. And we have a success rate of about 2 per cent. If we had a sober house and you put a sign on your door, people walking by would see the sign and it be similar to the block parent idea. It would be a safe place to go. Someplace where there was no drinking, no pressure to drink. You could just play cards and visit and watch television and be amongst sober people.

AMT: And then give each other strength.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: We turn our communities into treatment centres, we didn’t have to send people away.

AMT: You tell the story of a man who begged you to put him in jail, because he wanted to stay sober. He couldn’t find any other way. I’ve known him for a long time and I’ve frequently asked the judge to send him to jail, because it was pointless to put him on a probation order or any order that required him to not drink. And if he wasn’t drinking he wouldn’t cause any trouble. I’d see him around the communities, I’m the crown prosecutor, but he’d come up and shake my hand and talk to me. Once he told me, he was really proud he says I’m scheduled to go in for rehab. And I didn’t see him for a while and then I saw him one day in front of the post office and he came up and asked me to send him to jail. Because he’d been to rehab and he came back to the communities and he fell in with his friends again. And he was drunk, and he knew that if he didn’t stop drinking he was going to die.

AMT: So if there was a sober house for him to go to, he would have been OK.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: He’s doing better now.

AMT: Mm.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: He’s found sober friends to be around.

AMT: You have put your job as a crown prosecutor on hold temporarily for a project in two northern Saskatchewan Indigenous communities. Tell us what you’re working on.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: I’m on a special project with the deputy ministers of Saskatchewan to create community alcohol management plans and to socialize a concept of sobriety. I have three women behind me. My wife Joan, Carla Frohaug and Sue Carriere, and with three strong women behind me I can’t fail. I am the voice and they do all of the work and all of the research. And we’ve created a community alcohol management plan for those communities. It belongs to them. It’s not ours, it’s not the government’s. We talk to people, we talked to as many people as we could in creating the plan. We tried to hold community meetings, but it didn’t work. Every time we scheduled a community meeting, the building we were using would be required for a funeral or a wake and quite often those funerals and wakes were for people who died from drinking. So we had to change our strategy, we created surveys, and we knocked on doors. We talked to churches, we talked to sweat lodge keepers, and pipe carriers and anybody who would talk to us.

AMT: And what were you asking them? What should we do about alcohol?

AMT: And what would they tell you?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: 100 per cent of people said that alcohol was a problem in our communities. About 95 per cent said that it was getting worse. They would like to see changes to government policy. They’re telling us that we need to restrict supply. That there’s too many liquor stores and they’re open too long. There was support for increased taxation on alcohol. A lot of lives could be saved by just increasing the tax by 2 per cent. There’s no single answer.

AMT: You have written this book as a conversation among Indigenous people and you say that non-Indigenous people are welcome to listen. What do you want those of us who are not Indigenous to think about or do when we listen to you talking about this?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: Mm. That’s hard. You are not responsible. Don’t feel guilty about it. Speak honestly about it. Talk about your own issues with alcohol. Be part of the conversation.

AMT: Where do you want this conversation in your own community to go then?

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: I don’t know where it’s going to go. All I know is that it’s not going anywhere if we keep silent about it. I have no way of seeing the future. I just want my people to have hope and that we change our story and that our story becomes one of hope. It’s the hopelessness that I see killing everybody.

AMT: So again, if the narrative changes and more people talk about it, there’s more hope than everyone being silent.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: That is my dream.

AMT: Harold R. Johnson thanks, thanks for your ideas and for sharing them with us today.

HAROLD R. JOHNSON: And thank you for having me on Anna-Maria. It has been an honour.

AMT: Harold R. Johnson, Crown Prosecutor and the author of Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People and Yours. He joined us from Saskatoon. If you want to share your thoughts on the conversation about alcohol and Indigenous people visit our cbc.ca/thecurrent. Click on the Contact link and send us an email. You can find us on Facebook or tweet us @TheCurrentCBC. And if you’re joining us partway through, download the podcast cbc.ca/thecurrent, find our podcast there. Coming up next, putting our minds together to solve some big problems. We’ll hear about the neurotechnology that is linking different people’s brains together. I’m Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current on CBC Radio One.

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