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Harold R. Johnson

Q&A with Saskatchewan author about chance, magic and the power of story

special feature: Indigenization

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.

By Janet Harron

Born and raised in northern Saskatchewan, Harold R. Johnson has had a variety of careers: a member of the Canadian Navy, logger, miner, fisher, trapper, heavy equipment operator, mechanic, tree planter, lawyer and author.

His has published five fiction and three non-fiction books, including Two Families: Treaties and Government. The Cast Stone won a Saskatchewan Book Awards and Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours) was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award.

He read from his latest book Clifford: A Memoir, A Fantasy, A Thought Experiment recently as a participant of Memorial’s 2019 SPARKS Literary Festival.

JH: Clifford, your most recent book, is not restricted to any specific genre. Can you discuss why you resist categorizing this work?

HRJ: The subject was too difficult to write otherwise. Clifford could not be written as pure biography or it would come out as caricature. To truly tell the story of my older brother so that the reader got some sense of who he really was required that the work be as imaginative as he was. 

JH: What are the books that have had the most impact on your life?

HRJ: Whatever I might be reading at the moment. Leo Tolstoy’s Confessions.

JH: How did you become a writer?

HRJ: I have always been a writer. I began writing at four and did not publish until I was 40. I spent a great deal of time practising, honing my craft.

JH: Do you enjoy public readings at festival such as SPARKS? What do you as an author get out of the direct contact with the public and what do you think audiences get attending a formal reading?

HRJ: I am comfortable speaking publicly and always hope that what I have to say resonates with the audience. I want people who attend readings to be given something worthwhile to take away with them. I am an artist in love with my art, I can’t help but exude pride and exuberance about the work. I hope the audience is fed with that love.

JH: You have led an extraordinary life and have held multiple jobs/careers. What advice do you have for students who might be confused by their future?

HRJ: To students looking toward their future and wondering what might be there for them, I must say, the future is what happens to you as much as what you do. Looking back, my life was as much about chance as it was about choice. When chance befell me, I chose the path most interesting.

JH: You currently live “off the grid” in Northern Saskatchewan, operating your family’s traditional trap line. What would you like those who live in cities to know about those who live in rural areas? What is the biggest misconception currently about rural life?

HRJ: People who have never experienced life away from modern civilization sometimes think my way of living is hard. It is not. Living in a city is hard.

“The stories of my youth were magical, so I believe in magic.”

I cut and haul firewood and spend a great deal of time outdoors; trapping, fishing, gardening, running a dog team, walking, breathing, being. If I lived in a city, I would have to work a few extra hours at a job to afford a gym membership to maintain the same level of exercise.

I would have to work a few more hours to afford the meditation exercises and even more hours to afford the spiritual retreats necessary for a balanced life.

JH: In your book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours), you write:

“We can live any story that we want. We can live a romance, or a tragedy, or a comedy, or a mystery, or a fantasy, or a fable, or a fairytale. We can decide which story we want to be in and tell it to ourselves. The only limit on our ability to choose our own story is the story into which we are born. We have all been raised in a particular story. When we recognize it as story, it loses its power. This is especially true of victim stories. All of what we refer to as “society” is the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves.” 

This seems to be a powerful acknowledgement of the power of stories. What stories have been particularly powerful for you in being able to choose your own story?

RJH: I am the same as everyone else. I am as much a product of the story I was born into as I am the creator of my own story. My ability to imagine is limited by birth language, as is everyone else’s.

The stories of my youth were magical, so I believe in magic. If you do not believe in magic, you will never experience it.

JH: This special feature of the Gazette is focused on “Indigenization of the existing academy by the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials.” You have a new book coming out that will focus on Canada’s failure to deliver justice to Indigenous Peoples. In your opinion what can and should the academy be doing to address this failure among students, faculty and staff?

RJH: My experience with the justice system and Indigenization of structures leads me to believe that the colonizer cannot fix this. All the colonizer can do is get out of the way.

For there to be space for us, we have to create it, we have to take it and make it our own. Indigenization of institutions is our job, not the institution’s.

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