Firewater hits home

Let’s talk about it

Lori Deets

I recently attended my first Saskatchewan Festival of Words here in Moose Jaw, and was asked to help with some of the introductions over the course of the festival. One of them was a conversation between Waub Rice and Harold Johnson.

Harold is the author of Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing my People and Yours. Well, I immediately jumped to the task and started feverishly reading his book! In Harold’s book, he takes on the tough stereotypes. The “drunken Indian” is a story we’ve all been told.

Having been someone who has struggled with alcohol, this book was especially poignant for me. I remember as a teenager some of my first drinking experiences ended with me quite intoxicated and having very little self-control. I remember my friend’s mom saying something to the effect of, “Of course, she’s an Indian”. Those words stung me on contact with very little understanding of what she meant at the time. I knew it was further justification for the destruction I would cause using alcohol over the course of my life.

Harold goes on to give many intriguing facts and figures. He writes about how the leading causes of death in northern Saskatchewan is injury such as accidents and suicide, cancers and circulatory health issues and how alcohol use is a huge contributing factor in these. Alcohol use is linked to 200 different diseases. Harold goes on to sum up when you add these numbers together, over 50 per cent of all deaths are alcohol-related. That means one in two deaths in northern Saskatchewan are somehow connected to alcohol.

Now this story may seem all doom and gloom especially for First Nations people. However, there are many positives that come from this book. In studies done, roughly 35 per cent of First Nations abstain completely from alcohol. In conversation, Harold says only 17 per cent on non-Indigenous Canadians don’t drink at all. I say this not to make Indigenous people superior in this aspect. That would take a lot more than this statistic. I make this statement just to prove the point that alcohol is not just an “Indian” problem. It’s a problem in our society.

What the book also opens is a conversation. We need to talk about this, so let’s talk about it. Most of us have a story with alcohol. It may not be our own. It may be someone close to us, a husband/wife, brother/sister, cousin and uncle, who has a problem with alcohol. Many of these stories are tragedies. How do we change this? We start by talking about it.

My story was almost a tragedy. But through the grace of a higher power and the love of many people, I was able to change my story. I am proud to say I have been nine years clean. I have at times teetered on the edge of humility and embarrassment when I celebrate my success with abstinence. Much of society appears not to have this struggle. How many people can say they have patted themselves on the back for one day clean? I identify with those who struggle. I was quite hopelessly addicted to alcohol and drugs for quite some time, therefore I have decided to proudly make my stance as a recovering addict.

In Harold’s book, he says “If in all our stories, in our movies and television shows, we always imagine alcohol as a central part of our social structure, we cannot complain if everyone around us is drunk. This is what we have imagined for our people. These are the stories we’ve given them to live by.”

My story is no longer the drunken Indian, my story is recovery from addiction is possible. I have a son who has never seen alcohol or drugs in our home and my hope is that he will have a different story to tell when he gets older.