The stories we tell ourselves: In conversation with Harold R. Johnson

‘we create fictions and then we declare them natural, normal, and necessary,' said the former crown prosecutor.

This article discusses acts of police brutality and racialized violence against Indigenous peoples, as well as domestic violence and intergenerational trauma. It may be triggering to some users. If you require support, resources will be listed at the bottom of this article.

Former Crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson wants to see the end of the current Canadian justice system.

In the opening pages of his book, Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada, Johnson, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, makes two things clear: Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canadian prisons, and imprisonment doesn’t reduce crime.

“Even justice itself is an idea that we made up, a story that we tell ourselves,” he told The Pigeon in an interview.

“Justice does not exist anywhere outside of human consciousness. We create fictions and then we declare them natural, normal, and necessary. We won’t be changing any of them until we recognize that they’re just stories that can be changed.”

According to Statistics Canada, three out of every four people taken into federal or provincial custody in Saskatchewan between 2017 and 2018 were Indigenous.

For decades, studies on the question of recidivism—whether a convicted criminal is likely to reoffend—have overwhelmingly come to the same conclusions. To quote a 1999 study promoted by the Government of Canada: “Prisons should not be used with the expectation of reducing criminal behaviour.”

To justify participating in a system that you know isn’t working, Johnson said you have to tell yourself a story.

When Johnson worked as defence counsel—a lawyer representing accused individuals—he told himself he was protecting Indigenous people from the justice system.

Johnson’s office was in La Ronge, Sask., which he described as the last administrative center before you enter the rural majority of Northern Saskatchewan. In his experience, most of those who were brought to court in need of defence were Indigenous.

Johnson’s perspective on his role in the community as a defence lawyer changed entirely after just one case.

“I met a man who had hit his wife and was charged with assault and I went and got rid of the charge for him. He beat her up again and, again, I got rid of the charge. He beat her up a third time and, again, he hired me,” Johnson said.

“That third time it felt like, ‘he can beat her up anytime he wants, and Harold Johnson will get him off.’ I felt used.”

Johnson flew up further North from La Ronge to the community hall where the man’s court appearance was being held and confronted him. The man then pled guilty and went to jail.

Johnson told The Pigeon it was in that moment he realized he’d been on the wrong side of these disputes.

When the 2008 recession struck, many people lost the ability to afford lawyers, and work for Johnson’s La Ronge-based law office dried up. Johnson went to work for the Crown. Effectively, he joined “the other side.”

The prosecution works to prove the guilt of the accused while the defence argues innocence. As a new crown prosecutor for the government of Saskatchewan, Johnson had to tell himself a new story to get through the day.

“With the Crown, I said, ‘Well, [many] of the people who come to court in the North are Aboriginal but [all] of the victims are Aboriginal, and they’re usually women. So, I’m defending women.’”

However, he said the truth about the injustice of the current carceral system was right in front of him every day.

As Johnson acknowledges in his book, incarceration hasn’t been found to improve communities, and it certainly doesn’t improve the lives of those incarcerated.

He came to the realization that there’s no “right side” in the current justice system.

“I argued in Peace and Good Order that we can’t just deal with the system,” Johnson said. “It requires a complete reimagining.”

In early 2018, a white Saskatchewan man named Gerald Stanley was acquitted of charges related to shooting and killing Colten Boushie, a twenty-two-year-old Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation.

In the summer of 2016, Boushie and four friends punctured a tire on their way home and pulled into Stanley’s Saskatchewan farmyard. Stanley and his son saw the vehicle arrive, and then saw two members of the group try to start one of the ATVs on the property.

Stanley’s son chased them away and ran toward the group’s vehicle, breaking the windshield with a hammer.

When trying to turn the vehicle around to leave, Boushie’s group hit another vehicle on the property, crashing their own. Two members of the group then escaped on foot as Gerald Stanley fired two shots after them, hitting no one.

Stanley’s testimony is that he then ran to the car, where Boushie was sitting in the driver’s seat, and tried to turn the car off with one hand. He alleged his pistol accidentally went off in the other hand, resulting in Boushie’s death.

In the end, Stanley’s case was decided by an all-white jury.

He was not found innocent, as there was no question that he did kill Boushie, but his acquittal meant he wasn’t charged for murder or manslaughter.

Stanley’s trial made anti-Indigenous, colonial racism within Canada’s justice system a national conversation.

A public opinion poll collected after Stanley’s trial found that 32 per cent of Canadians thought the verdict was wrong while 63 per cent of Saskatchewan residents thought the verdict was good and fair.

Johnson opens Peace and Good Order with his reflections on the Stanley trial.

“It seemed that Canadian justice cared more about the property rights of settlers than about the lives of Indigenous youth. Gerald Stanley had used deadly force to protect his property, and the law decided that was okay,” Johnson wrote.

Talking to Johnson recently, he said the national conversations that occurred around the Stanley trial did little to improve conditions for Indigenous people in Saskatchewan.

“Nothing changed. It got worse,” Johnson said.

“After the Métis won hunting rights at the Supreme Court, Saskatchewan issued sidearms to conservation officers. After the Gerald Stanley trial, Saskatchewan issued [them] assault rifles,” he explained.

Conservation officers work for the environmental arm of the Saskatchewan government. The government advertises their role as “field staff who are responsible for protecting our environment and making sure natural resources like fish and wildlife are used wisely. While their primary role is environmental law enforcement […] they have the authority of police officers.”

In his book, Johnson elaborates on the provincial government’s decision to arm conservation officers in 2018.

“The Saskatchewan government, in an effort to garner votes, added fuel to the fire by issuing assault rifles to conservation officers and altering trespass laws to remove the assumption of free access to unoccupied lands.”

“There is no reason to give conservation officers assault rifles other than to send a message that Saskatchewan is prepared to go to war with its Indigenous population,” Johnson wrote.

When the Stanley trial was decided, Johnson recalled having a trauma response in which he “shut off the radio and ignored all social media.”

His response to the discussions around anti-Black and anti-Indigenous policing and racism in the Canadian prison system ignited in the summer of 2020 was similar.

To Johnson, trauma is not just a side effect of policing and justice, but an integral part of the system.

As a crown prosecutor in La Ronge, Johnson prosecuted about 1500 files a year.

“A thousand of those files will document a trauma of some sort. Most of my files were assault: assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, murder, manslaughter, sexual assault,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, those files don’t just represent the trauma of the victim: they represent the trauma of the perpetrator, the trauma of the families, and even of the police who were called to the event.

In fact, Johnson knows several police officers who are on leave due to PTSD. One man who left the force told Johnson about a house call that demonstrated the network of traumas, which Johnson recounted to The Pigeon.

“They’re told that ‘Joe’ is [in the house] drunk and Joe is causing trouble, so they go to the house to remove Joe. Joe’s a large man who doesn’t have a shirt on. They ask Joe to leave, he refuses, they go to arrest Joe and there’s a wrestling match on the living room floor with two police officers trying to put handcuffs on a large, drunk, bare-chested Joe.”

“There are three little boys on the couch watching cartoons, and when this police officer looks up at the boys, they’re leaning over to look around the disturbance of the two police officers and Joe, focusing on their cartoons.”

“The police officer interpreted that as those children [being] so used to violence that they didn’t even watch it anymore.”

In his book Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours), Johnson also has much to say about men in situations like Joe’s and the colonial trauma that brought them there.

“We have a traumatized population and a traumatized police force, and we put them together and expect good results. That’s not going to happen.”

“Now multiply my thousand files by eleven, for the eleven other prosecutors in Northern Saskatchewan, and that’s eleven thousand files representing multiples traumas, just for one year.”

This fall, Johnson attended an online conference with people who had worked with the United Nations to bring the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into being.

Other efforts like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were being discussed, and Johnson felt he had to bring those in attendance back to reality.

“I had to keep reminding people that in the communities, it hasn’t gotten better,” Johnson said.

When The Pigeon spoke to Johnson, his daughter was preparing to write the LSAT, the preliminary test for entry to law school.

“When I got into Harvard, law opened doors for me. A law degree is a powerful story to tell,” Johnson said.

However, he has no illusions about the legacy of his legal career.

“I believe I have done more for humanity as a writer than I did as a lawyer.”

The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers immediate help to all Indigenous peoples across Canada. Other crisis lines and 24/7 help options can be found at The LifeLine Canada

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