The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) was formed in 2008 and, until it finished its mandate in 2016, it shone a bright light on the tragedies that took place during the time residential schools operated in this country.
It also shed light on the assorted horrors dealt with by the generations that followed with parents or grandparents who were physically or sexually abused during their time at the schools, or severely traumatized by the experience of being taken from their families and losing touch with their culture.
The TRCC sparked so much debate across our country that many more Canadians also became aware of the Sixties Scoop, another dark period in our country’s history, during which time aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed with foster care or adopted.
The time has come, indeed, that atrocities committed against First Nations and Inuit be included in the curriculum of every high school across the country.
But, as always, there is another side; a dark side of the coin that we all must work together to avoid and ensure that through our efforts of reconciliation, truth, and understanding, we don’t inadvertently create another generation of victims.
One way to do that is to include the writings of Aboriginal people who offer their own ways – in their own voices – of breaking the cycle, especially with alcohol, including those who say it is not all ‘the white man’s fault.’
One such book that should be mandatory reading for any Canadian who really wants to see change, and isn’t just paying lip service about living in harmony, is Harold Johnson’s Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours).
Johnson grew up hard. He began hitting the bottle as a young man until he saw the bottom coming up at him and decided to make a change in his life. And what a change he made. He went back to school and ended-up a Harvard graduate and lawyer.
Some people explicitly blame heavy drinking today on colonialism and residential schools, and Johnson acknowledges that these injustices are real and have had a profound negative effect, but he also passionately believes that using them as “an excuse” condemns Indigenous people to be helpless victims, forever.
He writes that if Aboriginal peoples believe the victim story and allow themselves to live by it, they become victims and it is much harder for victims to fix their own situations.
Johnson pleads with people not to look to the the courts, the law, ‘the white man’, the medical establishment, AA, or any of these other places to fix themselves.
He writes if any of those things could have stopped alcohol from killing First Nations people, it’d have ended years ago.
Johnson poses some tough, confronting and uncomfortable questions and opinions in his book.
He says he believes alcohol is a weapon that has been used against his people as a key tool of colonialism. He says it is accepted that drinking is part of the colonial experience and he believes that self-induced intoxication is self-induced colonialism.
In Johnson’s view, by drinking, people participate in their own colonization. By which he means, First Nations people (and Inuit by extension) take all the negative ideas that white settlers brought with them and they take them into themselves.
Johnson sees Indigenous peoples as being born again as the colonizer through the ceremony of drinking. He reminds everyone in his book that the alcohol story, like the money and the Jesus story, came with the traders and settlers, but it does not have to be his people’s story.
You have to respect a man’s determination in convincing his people that the alcohol story was never theirs, and they have the power to change it.
Firewater: a book well worth the read.