In January 2024, a coroner’s inquest on the massacre at the James Smith Cree reserve was underway. I thought it an appropriate time to write a eulogy for Harold Johnson, highlighting his career in tackling the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse in rural communities of northern Saskatchewan. I submitted it to the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (a combined project of the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina), which maintains an online series of policy monographs. The academic responsible for deciding on publications rejected it, on grounds that it does not have an Indigenous co-author. Here we publish it in Inroads.

What would Harold Johnson have said about the massacre at James Smith Cree reserve?

Harold Johnson died in February 2022, seven months before the mass killing on a Saskatchewan reserve. Had Johnson lived, he would have said many things about Myles Sanderson’s killing 11 people and injuring another 17. According to Sanderson’s wife’s testimony at the inquest, he was “sometimes” a good parent of their five children. However, even when they first met in 2007, when Myles was 17 and Vanessa Burns was 21, Myles was an alcoholic. Later, he also became a cocaine addict and sold cocaine on the reserve.

This is an occasion to honour Johnson’s wisdom contained in Firewater, a memoir of his career.¹ Incidentally, Firewater was shortlisted in 2016 for a Governor General’s literary award. As introduction to his memoir, Johnson wrote,

I cannot stay silent any longer. I cannot with good conscience bury another relative. 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 Disorder (FASD), the violence, the poverty, the abandoned children, the mental wards and the emergency rooms, the injuries and the illness and the loss of hope and the suicides have all piled up within me to the point that I must speak.

I must speak 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. (Non-Indigenous leaders) have turned and looked the other way … If one of them were to speak up, they would be called racist and accused of stereotyping.

If Johnson was alive, he would have discussed the role of alcohol and drugs in Indigenous communities. He would have criticized fur traders for having introduced alcohol. However, he would have gone beyond history. He would have called on Indigenous people to recognize their failings, which have created so much misery. Johnson never satisfied himself with fatalistic arguments based on historical wrongs: “If we believe that the only reasons for our problems rest with colonization, we can never fix our problems, because we cannot go back and fix colonization. We cannot go back and change residential schools.”

Johnson was a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan, son of a Cree mother and a Swedish father (who identified as Cree). He lived a very full life. Before pursuing his final career as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, he undertook many careers. He was a logger, miner, trapper and fisher. He joined the navy. Having decided to be a lawyer, he got a law degree from the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently a master’s degree in law from Harvard. He spent two decades as a senior Crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan.

The central theme of his memoir is straightforward: alcoholism is the key dysfunction in First Nation communities. He concluded that the Canadian elites, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, had avoided discussion of a serious problem. In discussing the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), he wrote that alcoholism “was too blatant a subject to ignore … The commissioners argued back and forth about this study and that study and which might be correct … They said, ‘the widely held belief that most Aboriginal people consume excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis appears to be incorrect.’” Johnson’s response: “The Royal Commission obviously got it wrong.”

From his experience as crown prosecutor, Johnson described many harrowing cases. To give an example:

I know a young man from a community near here who had a girl-friend. The two of them were having a few relationship problems and had walked away from the community … They were standing on the bridge consuming alcohol. The girl decided to punish the young man by committing suicide – she jumped in front of a semi-truck that was passing by just then. The young man was devastated and confused … The experience haunted him, and he went to talk to an aunt for advice. She told him, “Go get good and drunk and let it go.” … He drank as much as he could for as long as he could. He woke up one morning in his car. The police were knocking on the window. They were investigating a hit and run. They found the victim’s DNA under the young man’s car. Sometime during the night he had run over his cousin and killed him … At that moment, he quit drinking. Trauma, grief and drinking seem to go together in our communities.

There is no definitive evidence on the prevalence of alcohol abuse in First Nation communities or on the extent of negative consequences. Johnson firmly believed his case studies were representative. He alluded to anecdotal evidence in the form of conversations with police, probation officers, judges and a forensic anthropologist, and personal experience with Indigenous friends – primarily those who did not drink. He cited the indirect evidence arising from coroners’ reports of proximate causes of death in northern Saskatchewan, where roughly two thirds of the population identify as First Nation or Métis. In the north, the leading cause of death between 1998 and 2007 was “injury” (at 23 per cent). In the province overall, “injury” was far less prevalent (at 6 per cent), and would be lower yet (at 4 per cent) were the north excluded.

Johnson’s conclusion: “These deaths from injuries in our communities are caused by suicide, car accidents, snowmobile accidents, drowning, stabbing, shooting, beating, house fires, and freezing to death. And behind these deaths by injury is one thing, and that is alcohol.” Having introduced his anecdotal and indirect evidence of excessive use of alcohol, he concluded by noting that 35 per cent of the Indigenous population does not drink, a higher percentage than among the non-Indigenous.

“Injury” (which includes suicide) is one of ten standard causes of death listed in coroners’ reports. It is, admittedly, an ambiguous residual category. One of the few comprehensive studies to make use of “injury” statistics was undertaken a decade ago by the First Nations and Inuit branch of Health Canada. The study analyzed the distributions of proximate causes of death among on-reserve First Nation and non-Indigenous in western Canada. The overwhelming difference between the two distributions was the dramatically higher incidence of “injury” among First Nation relative to non-Indigenous Canadians.²

As evidence that non-Indigenous elites are unwilling to address alcoholism, here is the conclusion of Wayne Arthurson’s (very negative) 2017 review of Firewater in Quill & Quire, the trade publication of the book industry in Canada: “Johnson’s basic argument – that alcohol is killing so many indigenous people – is flawed from the start … He offers no supporting research, no police reports, coroner reports, or medical records, to back up his claim.”³

Johnson pursued many careers, but statistician was not one of them. He was as aware as the author of the Quill and Quire review of the need for better statistical evidence. Johnson described an unsuccessful attempt to persuade a statistically competent colleague to research evidence on the role of alcohol among First Nation people in Saskatchewan:

I wanted to find out many things. How many deaths were the direct results of alcohol? What percentage of accidents? How many cancers? How many heart attacks? How many suicides? Could he determine how much shorter a child’s life would be because the parents were drinking and not providing proper nourishment during the child’s formative years? What is the cost to society for one child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) during that child’s life?

The 2021 census provides evidence relevant to Johnson’s concern for the legal consequences of alcohol and drugs.⁴ Over the five years 2017–21, among the non-Indigenous population the average homicide victim rate was 1.48 per 100,000 population. Among the Indigenous population outside the Prairies the rate was about 4.5 per 100,000; among the Indigenous population in the Prairies it was about 15 per 100,000. The majority of victims knew who killed them (see tables 1 and 2).

Johnson’s tentative short-term solution was expansion of “sober houses”:

If you have a sober house, if you are one of the 35% of our people who never use alcohol, you put a Sober House sign on your door and people will know that you welcome sober people to come and join you … A safe place, a cup of tea, someone to talk to, some who understand: the experience of what a healthy life and a healthy home look like would be, for many of our relatives, something superior to any treatment centre.

“Sober houses” may help, but they are probably a weak reed on which to rely. Johnson had much to say about revival of Indigenous values. In his chapter on employment, his conclusion was pessimistic:

We seem to be caught in a cycle. We claim to drink because we have nothing to do, and in our drinking we create the misery, dysfunction, and violence that drives the greater part of our economy. Most of the infrastructure in our territory – the hospitals, police stations, the courts, and the jails – depend upon our continued suffering … Maybe, if we are sober, we can imagine how to make our living from the land again.

Allan Blakeney and RCAP

Former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as an RCAP commissioner, would have agreed with Johnson about the commission, although they diverged on other matters. Allan Blakeney was a politician ahead of his time in his concern about the condition of the Indigenous population in his province. Many would now dismiss as inadequate his attempt as Premier in the 1970s to create Indigenous-run municipal governments throughout northern Saskatchewan. At the time, they were significant innovations.

Prior to publication of the RCAP report, Blakeney resigned as a commissioner. I asked him why he did this. He replied,⁵

In my opinion, roughly a quarter of those who identify as Indian or First Nation truly want a communal lifestyle available on self-governing reserves, and that should be acknowledged and respected. Another quarter are reasonably well integrated in mainstream Canadian society. The half in the middle are migrating between reserve and town and facing many social dysfunctions in both contexts. For two years, I travelled with other RCAP commissioners across Canada, but could never generate a serious discussion about the need for education and employment. My frustration was such that, finally, I thought it preferable to resign.

Blakeney placed more emphasis than did Johnson on formal education, and the desirability of most – not all but many – First Nations opting to go to town. Maybe Johnson was right, and Blakeney wrong. Whatever the ultimate explanation of excess Indigenous deaths by “injury,” Johnson made a convincing case that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders are minimizing a major social scourge.

Notes

¹ Regina: University of Regina Press, 2016. I raised some of the issues discussed in this article in my review of Firewater in the Summer/Fall 2020 issue of Inroads. Johnson was interviewed at the time of the book’s publication on CBC radio’s The Current..

² The non-Indigenous rate per 100,000 was 34.8, the First Nation rate 115.9. See Health Canada, A Statistical Profile on the Health of First Nations in Canada: Determinants of health, 2006 to 2010 (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2014), p. 10.

³ Wayne Arthurson, review, Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours), Quill & Quire, 2017, https://quillandquire.com/review/firewater-how-alcohol-is-killing-my-people-and-yours/

⁴ See my summary of statistics drawn from the 2021 census in my 2023 policy brief for the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

⁵ Here I take the liberty of summarizing a personal conversation.