28 February 2017

Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours)
by Harold R. Johnson
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$16.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-437-7

Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours) packs a wallop as Harold Johnson unveils the harsh truth about alcoholism on Aboriginal reserves. He exposes the truth, and the truth hurts. But by having the courage to confront alcohol head on, he stares it down into submission.

Johnson himself is an Aboriginal who has struggled with the crippling effects of alcohol addiction, so he knows what he’s talking about and speaks with authority. Although he directs his highly controversial book primarily at Aboriginals, non-Aboriginals could also benefit greatly from it.

Johnson is at heart a storyteller, using the storyteller’s technique of repeating certain words and phrases to create a hypnotic effect on readers. He elaborates on the devastating effects alcohol has had, and continues to have, on Aboriginal people.

Johnson’s shocking statistics are real eye-openers. He estimates, for instance, that fully one-half of all Aboriginals on Treaty 6 territory will die from an alcohol-related death, whether they drink or not. He also produces statistics showing that 35 per cent of Aboriginals don’t use alcohol at all, and that “there are more people in the Aboriginal population who are completely abstinent than in the general population,” effectively demolishing the stereotype of the “drunken Indian.”

Some Aboriginals use alcohol to cope with grief from the loss of loved ones. But Johnson questions whether they drink because people are dying, or whether people are dying because they drink. Obviously it goes both ways. If people drink to salve their grief, they will continue to die from alcohol-related causes.

Johnson goes beyond describing the effects of alcoholism. He offers solutions, repeatedly arguing that Natives must seek the solution for their predicament from within and can’t rely on governments at any level to save them. Only Aboriginals can save themselves, he says.

We are the story we tell ourselves, he insists. If we tell ourselves we have a disease called alcoholism that we have no control over, alcohol will continue to control our lives. But if we tell ourselves that we are sober and strong, that’s what we’ll become.

Johnson strengthens his arguments with notes, a list of sources for further reading, a glossary of Cree words, and an index. He reproduces the full text of Treaty 6 in an appendix, as well as letters from Tracey Lindberg and Richard Van Camp, two Aboriginal writers whose testimonials support Johnson’s findings. Van Camp says he doesn’t drink because he’s terrified of the power alcohol has on Aboriginal people.

Johnson’s message in Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours) is one that we ignore at our peril. As long as we see alcohol as socially acceptable, alcohol will continue to wreak havoc on our lives. Johnson insists we must change the story we tell ourselves.

So, what story will we tell ourselves? The choice is ours.


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