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

by Harold R. Johnson

Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations

by Richard Wagamese

The theme of healing is present in two recent non-fiction books by indigenous authors. But each author approaches the process of healing, and the question of what needs to be healed in the first place, in very different ways – and with varying degrees of success.

JanFeb_Reviews_Firewater_CoverIn Firewater, shortlisted for a 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award, crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson states there is one fundamental problem in indigenous communities, especially in the northern Saskatchewan region where he works: alcohol. It is not just a symptom of generational trauma arising out of colonization policies such as residential schools; it is the central dilemma facing indigenous communities. “Alcohol touches every part of our lives whether we drink or not. We cannot separate ourselves from the problem. It touches us no matter what we do. Even if we don’t drink, we have relatives that do, relatives who are suffering. Even if we don’t drink, we live in communities that are being destroyed by alcohol.”

While Johnson’s book does offer some insight as to how reconnecting with the land can heal, and how people can change their own stories, the text is essentially a rambling, lateral, violent treatise denouncing the evils of alcohol, rather than a thoughtful commentary on the possible root causes of addiction in some indigenous communities, or suggestions for how to solve it. Instead, the author peppers the book with numerous reefer-madness-style anecdotes about indigenous people in trouble as a result of alcohol.

Johnson’s basic argument – that alcohol is killing so many indigenous people – is flawed from the start. Using statistics from Saskatchewan Health, Johnson states that death rates from injury in northern Saskatchewan, where many Woodland Cree people live, amount to 23 per cent of all deaths, more than three times the provincial average. “And behind those deaths by injury is one thing and that is alcohol.” He offers no supporting research, no police reports, coroner reports, or medical records, to back up his claim.

He goes on to state that heart disease and cancer also kill many people in northern Saskatchewan. Since the consumption of alcohol may play a role in the development of these diseases, he makes the uncorroberated correlation that more than half of all deaths in northern Saskatchewan are alcohol-related. No doubt addiction is a concern in many indigenous communities, but for a Harvard-educated lawyer to posit such a dramatic hypothesis based on such flimsy evidence isn’t sufficient.

Firewater is a muddy book filled with loose interpretations of statistics, contradictory arguments, and a dismissal of the effects of long-term and cultural trauma. Instead of expunging the myth of the “drunken Indian problem” – a myth Johnson desires to change – he perpetuates it by arguing that indigenous people could solve many of their problems if only they didn’t drink so much.

JanFeb_Reviews_Embers_CoverOn the other side of the spectrum, there is Richard Wagamese’s new book, Embers. The author of a dozen titles, including the novels Medicine Walk and Indian Horse, Wagamese has had his own struggles with addiction, which he has confronted in public speeches and in his writing. But he is not defined by these struggles. They are part of his life, no doubt, but most Canadians know him as one of the country’s best novelists.

Embers is a departure from the author’s narrative books – a collection of thoughts and ideas that come from his daily meditative practice. “They are the embers from every story I have heard. They are the embers from all the relationships that have sustained and defined me. They are the heart songs. They are the spirit songs.”

This is not the kind of book you read once from beginning to end then put on your shelf with the rest of your collection. It is the type of book you set on your bedside table or desk, and open at a random page whenever you feel the need to poke at the emotional and spiritual fire within yourself. The meditations are varied in tone and approach: some are descriptions of a scene, others are thoughts about the chatter going on in the author’s head. There are also many wry conversations between Wagamese and his spirit guide, Old Woman. Cumulatively, the book’s meditations are sad, funny, and touching. But most of all, they have the potential for healing, if that’s what you’re looking for. If not, it’s still a wonderful read.