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February 21, 2018

How Alcohol is Killing My People

Scott Stockdale

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Alcohol is the cause of as much as half the deaths in Northern Saskatchewan Treaty 6 territory, according to Harold R. Johnson, author of the highly acclaimed book Fire Water: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours).

Although Mr. Johnson, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former crown prosecutor and, member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nations, in the Northern Saskatchewan, describes his book – shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General's Award for non-fiction – as “a conversation between myself, my relatives and the Woodland Cree,” his message about the devastating consequences of alcohol consumption ought to be of concern to all Canadians, and people around the world, for that matter.

“I am about to drag this filthy stinking subject out into the light where everyone can see it. It is my hope that the light kills it. I am going to speak without being asked because no one else is speaking and the silence needs to be broken.”

Speaking on a recent edition of TV Ontario's The Agenda, with host Steve Paikin, Mr. Johnson explained some of the ways alcohol is killing people.

“That's the number (50 per cent) I came up with. It's based on a report from Northern Saskatchewan. It said the leading cause of death is injury 24.3 per cent. Injury is car accidents, shootings, stabbings, house fires, suicides.

“The second leading cause of death is heart disease at 23 per cent and we know that excessive drinking damages the heart; and all those guys I used to party with, who didn't shut it down, are now falling dead of heart attacks. The third leading cause of death at 21 per cent is cancer. We know that alcohol causes all forms of cancer: throat, liver pancreatic. We know that if a woman has one drink a day she substantially increases her risk of breast cancer. Add to that children who don't get proper nutrition when they're young because their parents are drinking and have shortened lives.”

He added that we know alcohol causes over 200 illnesses and injuries.

“People who drink too much have what's called “failure to thrive” because it damages their immune system. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder(FASD) also shortens people's lives because of injuries. I put those numbers together and I come to one in two.”

Mr. Johnson told host Steve Paikin he got PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) looking at too many horrible files caused by alcohol, during his time as a crown prosecutor. In Fire Water: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours), Mr. Johnson said 50 per cent of the deaths he experienced as a crown prosecutor there's an alcohol connection. He said people don't realize the devastation alcohol is reeking on people's lives.

He cited a couple of taboos on the subject of alcohol abuse that he believes helps cover up the devastation it causes on people's lives.

“White people can't talk about Indians and alcohol because they're afraid people will call them racist. And Indians don't want to talk about it because they're scared people will say 'You see it's true: they are lazy, dirty, drunken Indians.’”

However, he added that after giving presentations on his book across Northern Saskatchewan, he discovered he was wrong: people do want to talk about this problem, and Mr. Johnson indicated that he speaks to them from first-hand experience.

“By the time I was 20 I had never seen an adult who was sober. I joined the Canadian Navy at 17. Beer was 25 cents a bottle; hard liquor was 15 cents an ounce. The navy in my day was all about drinking. I got out of the navy and I went into logging and mining and I'm in the camp in the late seventies and early 80's; and it was wide open: alcohol was natural, normal and maybe even necessary.”

Mr. Johnson blames the white settlers for introducing alcohol and its devastating effects to the Indigenous communities in Canada. He said that in the late 1870's newcomers to Canada were coming across the prairies putting in telegraph lines and they were met by the Cree, who didn't appreciate the intrusion on their land.

“In 1875, the Cree said: 'Get off our land and don't come back until we have a treaty.' Cree were the most powerful military force there so they sent George McDougall - a missionary - to talk to the chiefs and the head men in all the camps that winter.

“In 1876, we negotiated Treaty 6 at Forts Carlson and Fort Pitt. During the negotiations the Indians said they wanted a treaty and one of the things on the list was a ban on alcohol. 'When we see it, we drink it and it destroys us. If we don't see it, we don't think about it',” they said.”

He added that it's written into Treaty 6 that “the Queen's Indian children shall be protected from illegal influences of alcohol throughout the tracts and no liquor shall be allowed on the reserve.”

However, he said this was overturned by our courts in 1960, as a result of a case in Northwest Territories.

“We had just passed the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court determined that Aboriginal people have a human right to drink. They (Supreme Court Judges) didn't check with us They don't look at the treaties or the negotiations.”

Mr. Johnson said elders told him that while there was some drinking on the reserves in the 1940's and 1950's, something changed in 1966, with the opening of a mine.

“The miners came and had a party on the reserve 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At the other end of town there was another party for those who jumped out of air planes and fought forest fires. They had a party and they only invited Aboriginal women.”

He also said that rich Americans flew in to go fishing and everybody remembers they are the ones who had hard liquor as well as an interest in Aboriginal women.

Mr. Johnson suggested raising the prices as one method to deter alcoholism.

“We can't stop the sale, so increase prices and reduce availability. We did some conservative numbers for Saskatchewan and it looks like they're spending six times as much as they're taking in from sales, paying for the harm from alcohol. One study out of the United States said a one per cent increase in price reduced domestic violence by three per cent.”

But this is just the tip of the iceberg in the fight against alcoholism Mr. Johnson is leading. He said he and community representatives from all walks of life are attempting to change the tide against alcoholism Northern Saskatchewan by reaching out to the younger generation.

“We're working with the schools and we changed the curriculum and we've trained teachers about how to talk to kids about alcohol without preaching to them. We've got the town, the village and the Indian band all working together with a community alcohol management plan. Youth held a walk for sobriety and finished their walk. It isn't a problem that affects all aboriginal people. Thirty-five per cent of us are completely abstinent; that's twice as many as the general population of Canada at 18 per cent.”

Mr. Johnson hopes these efforts will change the narrative about alcohol which will in turn reduce the devastation it visits on people's lives.

“If we change our story about alcohol; if we stop accepting it as normal, natural and necessary; if we stop telling ourselves that alcohol is medicine; that is dissolves grief, maybe we won't have to stand at so many gravesides and mourn senseless deaths.”

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