Harold R. Johnson (LLB'95) is the author of Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours). (House of Anansi)
Harold R. Johnson (LLB'95) is the author of Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours). (House of Anansi)

Cree author Harold R. Johnson reflects on life, death and the quest for stories

'That quest for story has given me so much'

Harold R. Johnson died on Feb. 9, 2022. He was 68 years old. Johnson had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. 

In this interview that originally aired on Feb. 5, 2022, he spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his life and career.


Harold R. Johnson (LLB'95) has been many things. The son of a Cree mother and a Swedish father, both trappers, Johnson has been a logger, trapper and miner. He did a stint in the Royal Canadian Navy. He studied law and did an MA at Harvard Law School, where on top of his studies, he wrote his first novel, Billy Tinker. He also was in private practice as a lawyer before becoming a crown prosecutor.

But he has always been a writer. He was writing when he was four, but didn't publish until he was in his 40s. The floodgates opened with 11 books published including the dystopian novel Corvus, nonfiction books Cry Wolf and Peace and Good Order and the memoir Clifford

In 2021, he released The Björkan Sagas, a book set in an enchanted world of heroic storytellers that weaves history, fantasy and myth.

Johnson has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and reflected on his life and career in an interview with Shelagh Rogers.

Looking back

"What a ride, what a glorious ride that was! If you go far enough back, there's a little eight-year-old boy who lost his dad and was forced to go on welfare. I was this half-breed from northern Saskatchewan — nothing was expected from me except that I fail.

"Good or bad academia changed me — so much so I went to Harvard — and that was really good. Harvard said, 'Here in all our wealth, have the best experience you can."

First novel

"I wrote Billy Tinker more as a lark. I was just having fun and it turned into something. It wouldn't have been written if it wasn't for this writing group I was in with a couple other Canadians.

"The best thing about the group is we never criticized each other. We just said good things no matter what — and it really worked.

"I showed up to the first meeting and I had a first chapter of Billy Tinker. And by the end of the year, I'd written the book. I remember early on, the group seemed to recognize that there's more to my writing than what they were bringing.

"My buddy Chris who worked at Harvard Library wanted all my notes. He put them together and bound them. He created a piece of art and presented it to me on my last day that we were meeting as a writing group.

And he said, 'Harold, you take this and you send this to a publisher when you get home. They'll see that it's a real book. They'll speak about it as a real book when they make their decision.' And it worked." 

Read the full article at https://www.cbc.ca/radio.

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