Harold R Johnson

I was reading about Canada’s justice system, specifically about the rates of recidivism, and generally about a system seemingly obsessed with incarceration with little if any focus on prevention of crime, how to help our most vulnerable before they find themselves in trouble. Do we have a system in Canada for addiction support that is readily accessible? Do we have a system in Canada for access to counselling for mental health issues? I have heard people say I don’t break the law so why should I care about the justice system or I’m not poor so why should I care about systems that ease the stress and by-products of poverty. My reading on potential improvements to the justice system based on repeated studies from which no change comes brought me to Harold R. Johnson and his book Peace and Good Order, published by McClelland & Stewart in 2019.

I was familiar with Mr. Johnson and his writing. I heard him several times on CBC Radio with Shelagh Rogers and I was always compelled to learn more about him and from him. He was that kind of writer, a writer with a purpose. This book is a small one, easily read in a short amount of time, but I paused over each page, wanting to pull out the wisdom I found there so I could call on it later. I borrowed the book from the library, but this is going to have to be one I purchase because I will want to refer to it again and again.

Harold R Johnson, born in Saskatchewan from a Cree mother and Swedish immigrant father, was always a writer, from when he was four years old, though he didn’t publish until he was in his forties. His parents were both trappers and his father died when Harold was eight. The government told Harold’s mother they would take her children from her if she continued to work the trapline with them. She did as she was told and moved to another community where she was forced to go on welfare. She had been self-sufficient before that time, but she did as she was told, to keep her six children. To share even a tiny piece of Harold R Johnson’s achievements and wisdom would be too much for a column of this size. I urge you to read his book, any of them, but particularly this book, written as a plea for change.

Harold had no plans to become a lawyer. He did a stint in the Royal Canadian Navy, had been a logger, a trapper, and a miner. He was working at the Key Lake Uranium mine in Northern Saskatchewan, operating heavy equipment. Management’s opinion was those who had Harold’s job did so because they weren’t smart enough for other jobs. To prove them wrong, Harold quit his job and went to university, but not just any university. Harold got a master’s degree in law from Harvard, evidence enough that a stereotype founded in ignorance was beyond ridiculous. He already knew he was smart, his employer didn’t. Harold went into private practice in law in the north, then became a crown prosecutor in a system that punished those already being punished by the devastation of alcohol. Eventually, he couldn’t stomach the role he played in a broken system and he put his law degree to rest.

Harold writes of the failure of the justice system. “This book is my act of taking responsibility for what I did, for my action and inactions,” Harold wrote on the book’s jacket cover. But inside the cover is a concise and thoughtful explanation of what isn’t working and what might work. It’s easy for any of us to point at a social system and find fault with it, but what we need is to read about alternatives, about solutions, and ideas that challenge the way we have always done things for no other reason than we have always done it that way. Harold provides ideas from another perspective than incarceration.

He wrote of an officer of the Major Crime Unit. “He was prepared, he was polite, he never overstated his case, and he treated the accused decently.” Harold asked him about his approach. “It changed when I quit thinking of us and them. It’s all just us. They’re the same as me. They just messed up,” the officer said.

Harold was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2019. He did an interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio in February of 2022, days before his death. You can find the episode online and it is well worth the listen. “Nothing was expected from me except that I fail,” Harold said, as a kid living in poverty who was hungry for knowledge.

As death grew closer, he wanted his mind clear without painkillers. Shelagh asked what was important to him as he surveyed the past. “Listen,” Harold said. “Listen for the story. Everything is story.”

Harold had much more to teach us about how to right the ship. Thank goodness we have his writing. He dedicated Peace and Good Order, The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada to the next seven generations. I believe he included us all.