Harold R. Johnson is a Cree lawyer and writer who grew up on a trapline in Northern Saskatchewan. He did a stint in the Canadian Navy, worked as a logger, a miner and a heavy equipment operator before earning law degrees from The University of Saskatchewan and Harvard University. After spending over a decade as a criminal lawyer in Treaty Six Territory, where he grew up, he becoming a senior Crown prosecutor there eight years ago.
Firewater, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award last year, is his passionate, honest and often angry look at what he sees as the greatest challenge facing Indigenous Canadians today, especially those on reserves, the abuse of alcohol.
Johnson points out that although 35% of Indigenous Canadians totally abstain from alcohol (twice as many as in the general population) he estimates that 95% of the cases he has tried on reserves involved alcohol. He calls the justice system “a Triple-A court,” in that it is “nothing more than Alcohol Aftermath Administration.”
Most of the defendants in court, he says, are not hard-core alcoholics (who are usually too unfocused to be violent or criminal) but men and women who have binged on alcohol on that particular occasion and made “stupid choices” leading to outcomes ranging from drunk driving accidents up to murder and sexual assaults.
“I must speak,” he says, ” because so few are speaking. Our political leaders, our chiefs and councillors, the Assembly of First Nations, the Indian federations, the tribal council—all seem so silent. kiciwamanawak (colonizers, white people) have turned and looked the other way. Their governments are silent, their churches are silent, their schools and hospitals are silent. Even their police officers who have to deal with alcohol everyday do not speak up. kiciwamanawak cannot speak about us and alcohol. They cannot use the words Indian and alcohol in the same sentence. If one of them were to speak up, they would be called racist and accused of stereotyping. Given the history between our peoples, racist is not something kiciwamanawak want to be called.”
Johnson firmly believes that it is up to First Nations people themselves to “tell a new story” about their relationship to alcohol and to live by that new narrative, although the old story is a very powerful one “that can go beyond the grave, and it is going to take a long time and a lot of effort before we change that story.”
“Drinking is part of the colonial experience. Self-induced intoxication is self-induced colonization. By drinking, we participate in our own colonization. We take all the negative ideas that kiciwamanawak brought here and we take them into ourselves. We are born again as the colonizer through the ceremony of drinking.”
Only by taking community-based action to promote the rejection of the use of alcohol as a colonial evil can Indigenous society thrive, according to Johnson. This includes opening up dialogues: sober Natives telling their stories openly and not simply mourning the many alcohol related deaths but openly talking about them as people having been “murdered by alcohol.”
Hard truths and sadness permeate the book. Johnson is very good at explaining the problem and its historical roots, but he comes up short on answers beyond hopes of somehow restoring native traditions of dignity, integrity and agency which have been lost under colonialism. Meanwhile, the trauma continues.