On Jan. 23, the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre hosted Changing the Story: A talk by Harold R. Johnson. The talk focused on alcohol abuse in northern Saskatchewan, where Harold Johnson is from, with an emphasis on the effects of alcohol in Indigenous communities.
Johnson, an alumnus of the University of Saskatchewan, is now a retired crown prosecutor and the author of the national bestseller Firewater. He is determined to change the story of substance abuse in both his home region and the rest of Canada.
During the talk, Johnson noted that, over the course of his career as a lawyer, approximately 95 per cent of the people in court committed their offences while they were intoxicated, leading Johnson to refer to the incidents as “drunken mistakes.” He also noted that it is was unusual for these individuals to return to court for committing additional offences, as the first instance was often out of character for them.
Regan Ratt-Misponas, a third-year Indigenous studies student, explains how the talk was necessary to address the challenges of substance abuse, an issue he believes is present not only in northern communities but also on campus.
“It’s something you do see up there, but you see it all over. You see it here in the city as well, on campus. Some would make the argument that there’s a culture of alcohol here on campus,” Ratt-Misponas said.
Johnson explained to the audience that, during his years as a prosecutor, the justice system did not help people who suffer from substance-abuse problems. He now works to engage younger generations in a dialogue on substance abuse before they enter the workforce. Johnson says that, by doing this, he is starting the conversation, but he hopes that the people he talks to will continue the conversation and carry on his work.
Indiana Best, a first-year master’s student in public health, explains that there is an urgency to continue this discourse on the topics of alcohol use and alcoholism.
“The current system is not working. It’s not working to send people to jail,” Best said. “There needs to be a shift in all of society’s way of thinking on how we treat people of society.”
Best also discusses how Johnson’s talk inspired her to continue pursuing education in order to better her community.
“I thought it was really inspirational — just to see where he’s gone in his education and also just [his] motivation for trying to make his community better,” Best said. “It’s something I hope I can do.”
Along with engaging young people in conversation, Johnson and two of his colleagues have worked to find solutions to alcoholism by creating the Northern Alcohol Strategy, a committee that focuses on reducing alcohol abuse within northern communities.
The NAS has already started a conversation on the impacts of alcoholism, and Graeme Joseph, team leader of First Nations, Métis and Inuit student success at the Aboriginal Students’ Centre, sees the importance of continuing this conversation at the U of S with the support of the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre.
“University is a place of ideas — bringing people [together] to talk about them, to better understand them [and] to look for potential solutions,” Joseph said. “What we, the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Centre, want to do is just provide that opportunity.”
Justin Knight, a third-year psychology student, explains that he was interested in this talk, because he wants to pursue a career that focuses on addressing the core issues relating to addictions.
“As a future psychologist, I want to work in the addictions field and look at healing [the] underlying issues that exist once the drugs and alcohol are removed,” Knight said. “I believe those are at the heart of addiction.”
Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor