Harold R. Johnson, an influential voice among Indigenous writers in Canada, has died, Radio-Canada Books confirmed.
He died on Wednesday. He was 68 years old.
Johnson, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, was a lawyer and writer, whose groundbreaking book Firewater: How Alcohol Kills My People (and Yours) was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in the non-fiction category.
“Storyteller, trapper, father, brother, husband, uncle Harold R. Johnson breathed his last today and will continue the rest of his journey on the other side. He was surrounded by his loved ones,” a statement said. by Johnson’s family via Facebook.
“At this time, there will be no funeral service. Arrangements for a celebration of life will be communicated in the coming months. We ask everyone to give our family time and space to grieve. Thank you.”
Johnson, whose most recent work was the 2021 book The Björkan sagashad recently been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Become a writer
Johnson was born in 1954 in northern Saskatchewan to a Swedish father and a Cree mother. As an adult, Johnson enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and worked as a logger, trapper and miner before going to college.
He studied law and obtained a master’s degree at Harvard Law School where, in addition to his studies, he wrote his first novel, Billy Tinker. He ran a private practice for several years before becoming a Crown prosecutor.
“I wrote Billy Tinker more like a lark. I was just having fun and it turned into something. It wouldn’t have been written if it wasn’t for this writing group I was in with a few other Canadians,” he said. The next chapterby Shelagh Rogers in 2022.
LISTEN | Harold R. Johnson speaks with Shelagh Rogers:
22:43Harold R. Johnson on his life in the stories
He was writing at the age of four, but did not publish until he was 40.
The floodgates opened and he would have 11 published books, including the dystopian novel Corvus. Selected for Canada Reads in 2019the book depicts a world ravaged by climate change and war where people have migrated north to escape unlivable conditions.
“I wanted to write about climate change, quite frankly. The whole book is based on what’s going to happen and Corvus is my imagination. I had to put in science and interesting characters to keep the reader engaged,” he told CBC Books in 2019.
fire wateran examination of Aboriginal alcohol use in Canada, draws on Johnson’s work as a Crown prosecutor and is inspired by the loss of his younger brother to a drunk driver.
Johnson said at the time that he wanted to create a new narrative about alcohol and Indigenous people, as well as the hardships alcohol consumption causes for many in Johnson’s Cree community.
During his 20 years as a barrister and Crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan, Johnson sent many Indigenous offenders to jail for crimes committed while intoxicated. This, he told CBC Radio’s Piya Chattopadhyay in 2018, was not helping anyone and that Indigenous peoples should be able to take charge of justice in their own communities.
LISTEN | Harold R. Johnson speaks with Outdoors:
Outdoors6:35“I probably made things worse”: former Cree prosecutor looks back with regret on his work in Saskatchewan
“In my community, we don’t want to talk about it publicly because we’re afraid people will point fingers at us and call us ‘lazy, dirty, drunk Indians’,” he said. The stream in 2016.
“The writing just flowed. It was effortless. When I got past the fear and sat down, it poured out of me. I wanted to have a conversation with my brother. When I written, the language is deliberate. There are no academic words in it because my brother was not an academic and I wanted to write to him in a language he would understand,” he told CBC. Books in 2017.
Stories are powerful
He told Rogers in 2020 that his approach to storytelling has evolved to reframe the narrative around Indigenous people.
“Stories are extremely powerful. Stories can heal you, stories can kill you. So it’s like a placebo; I give you a sugar pill, I tell you it’s medicine. If you take the pill and believe the story, 30-50% of people experience a reduction in symptoms,” he said The next chapter.
“Thinking about storytelling in a new way came spontaneously out of a conversation I was having. Someone asked me a question and I said, ‘We have to change the story that we tell ourselves.’
“I blew myself away with that. I then started thinking about the story and I took that idea home and sat on it for a long time.”
In one of his last interviews, he spoke with Rogers about his successes in his life and writing career.
“What a ride, what a glorious ride! If you go back far enough, there was an eight-year-old boy who lost his father and was forced to go on welfare. I was this northern Saskatchewan half-breed — nothing was expected of me except that I fail,” Johnson said.
“I’m at peace. But peace is on many levels. I haven’t found nirvana but I’m doing pretty darn well for an old trapper.”