Book Review – Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours)

By Morgan O’Neil

As a 65-year-old recovered (recovering) authentic alcoholic with ten years of sobriety and 40 years of destructive drinking–courting death and disaster–behind me, I believe I have earned the right to tackle the issue of alcoholism. In my up close and personal experience with inebriation I have gathered the ideas and vocabulary necessary to articulate the problem taken on by Harold R. Johnson’s recently published book, Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours). If there were ever an issue that cries out for a fix it is the devastation by alcohol, by the ‘firewater’ of the book’s title.


And if Harold Johnson and I have experienced the death-dealing power of alcohol use for individuals and their communities from different perspectives, we have arrived nevertheless at a similar conclusion; that is to say, so far nothing has worked, nothing has managed to stem the homicidal and suicidal direct results (and many and myriad unintended consequences) of alcohol consumption.  Johnson’s book is, as others have said, “a passionate call to action.”

Johnson begins (as any good writer should when arguing a point) by pointing beyond the act of writing to establish his credibility; he gives us a good reason why we should give him a listen in the first place, in the context and language of the courtroom (or the sentencing circle) why we should give him a hearing; and it is very much a valid justification.  The author is a Crown prosecutor: as such over the course of his career he has “noted that the vast majority of people charged with offences were intoxicated at the time they committed the offence.”

But there is more to Johnson’s credibility than this objective relationship with the problem of alcoholism, and as a reader I think this is important. He has been many other people in his life: logger, miner, trapper, fisher, mechanic, firefighter, heavy equipment operator, smelter worker, tree planter, trade unionist, educator, writer, and holds a Master’s degree in Law from Harvard University. He has written five works of fiction and another non-fiction book, Two Families: Treaties and Government examining Canadian constitutionalism from a Cree law perspective. If this does not add up to credibility I do not know what does.

He is honest about his own past. He also gives us access to the historical trauma of his interior life. He was the victim of sexual abuse when he was a child. The very first words he writes state that, [this] small book is a conversation [between the writer and his] relatives the Woodland Cree” in Northern Saskatchewan. He intends to be ‘tough’, as one might expect a Crown prosecutor to be; that is to say, we may not like what we hear as it pertains to ourselves and our place in the problem we face, the fact that in the end we bear responsibility for at least some of the devastation caused by drinking, and there is no easy solution to the problem.  And what is the problem, or better yet, what is not the problem, according to Johnson?

Well, it is for certain not the past internalized and the historical trauma that indigenous peoples have experienced in Canada and the rest of the Americas by colonialism, residential schools, the sixties scoop, impoverished urban exile, etcetera. The list could go on and on. The problem of alcoholism and substance abuse (as wrongly defined by the colonialist) is in fact the solution, but that solution is the problem. This narrative of aboriginal intersection with alcohol needs to be rewritten and retold.

Johnson is clear; the story being told, the story we tell ourselves, a twenty-first century story written by the white man (kiciwamanawak) defining the Indian once again as victimfrom indios by Russel Means and the American Indian Movement, from Columbus as the phrase In Dios “with God”—this story must be reformulated and populated with new, no longer victimized protagonists and warrior heroes.  The colonial story forces First Nations peoples to take on an identity as a people unable to fix the problem ourselves. “If we are a product of historical trauma and so we’re then victims,” according to Johnson, “we are stuck in that story with no way of telling our way out of it.”

On the basis of this articulation, Johnson lays out an alternative narrative from that of the ‘lazy drunken Indian’ in order to clear the way to a different conclusion and find and fashion a home-grown fix to a problem that threatens to destroy Indigenous communities. Johnson’s suggestions for necessary ways of healing are welcome and tragically overdo. And his suggestion for an alternative narrative is not one of hopelessness. The book should be a bible in the fight for survival and recovery, for a better life for coming generations, and it should somehow be made available to band councils and urban community and friendship centres.