'I probably made things worse': Cree former prosecutor looks back regretfully on his work in Saskatchewan

During his 20 years as a lawyer in Northern Saskatchewan, Harold Johnson helped send many Indigenous offenders to jail. But he says he never met someone he’d call a criminal, rather fellow Indigenous people who did something stupid while drunk.

This, he says, was not helping anyone. Now, he’s glad to be out of the justice system.

‘I wanted to prove that Harold Johnson wasn’t stupid’

Johnson was born and raised in a Cree community on Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan. Becoming a lawyer was never the plan for his career.

He had been working in uranium mines and said there was a pervasive story that if you drive a CAT or haul truck, you were stupid. 

“I wanted to prove that Harold Johnson wasn’t stupid, so I quit the mines and I went to university and I picked the hardest thing they had,” he said.

Johnson went to law school to prove a point. 

Harold Johnson is now retired from his career in law. (Courtesy of Harold Johnson)

“When you get a bachelor’s degree in anything there’s a story that said, you didn’t earn that, they just gave it to you because you’re an Indian,” said Johnson. “So to prove nobody gave me anything, I went to Harvard and got a Master’s degree in law.”

Indigenous people represent five per cent of Canada’s population. They also make up about a quarter of Canada’s prison population. As a prosecutor, Johnson had a hand in that.

Over the years, Johnson watched what he calls “jailhouse culture” become many people’s idea of Indigenous culture. He said that after residential schools erased their culture, the jailhouse one took over.

“I wrote ‘closed’ and put the file away into a filing cabinet, and the person went to jail … The longer he was away, the worse he was going to be when he returned.” 

Johnson had told himself that he was protecting communities. But he says many offenders exit jail angry and mean. He felt that he wasn’t helping his community, or anyone’s community. 

“I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably made things worse,” he said.

When he returned from Harvard, Johnson was proud of his accomplishments. But he later realized that he felt shame about the people like him who got drunk and committed violence, and he took that shame out on clients and on those he prosecuted.

A change in the justice system

Johnson retired from prosecuting at the end of 2017, and now lives in a cabin off-grid on his trapline. He now feels energized and focuses that energy on writing about justice.

“The option is for Aboriginal people to take over justice in their communities. And focus on healing, rather than deterrence and punishment.”

John said that the years of schooling he underwent to become a lawyer alienated him from his roots. 

“By the time you’re done, you’ve got about 20 years invested in the indoctrination of settler culture. You’ve lost your connection to your community. You’ve lost connection to everything.”

During that period, Johnson says he was taught that his culture was less than, that his religion was animistic and that his language was pre-literate. 

“And on the outside of that indoctrination [and] system of education, there’s a story that says that Indians are lazy, dirty drunks. And you might fight against it, you might get angry when you hear it. But it affects all of us.”

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode “Split Loyalty.”

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