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‘Distinctive laugh’: friends, colleagues remember Métis writer, lawyer Harold Johnson

Greg Lyndon remembers the first day he met Harold Johnson, a Métis lawyer and celebrated author who died Wednesday.

Lyndon, freshly called to the bar, was attending the same circuit court in northern Saskatchewan as Johnson. Proceedings broke for lunch and the two sat down together for a bite to eat.

“I was putting on my best show, with my fancy law degrees and all,” Lyndon recalls.

Johnson assessed the new guy with his piercing blue eyes, took in Lyndon’s snappy new lawyer suit.

“He looked at me across the table and his first question was whether or not I was a musher. He didn’t care about these fancy degrees. He wanted to know if I ran dogs.”

It was a typical bit of cheekiness from a man who sometimes wore moccasins in court. But that was just one aspect of a man who, at various times, was a lawyer, writer, trapper, fisher, mechanic, heavy equipment operator, miner, logger, firefighter, union organizer and tree planter.

“The storyteller, trapper, father, brother, husband, uncle Harold R. Johnson took his final breath today and will continue the rest of his journey on to the other side,” said a statement from his family. “He was surrounded by his loved ones.”

Born in 1954, Johnson was the son of a Cree mother and Swedish father, a member of the Montreal Lake First Nation. He decided to study law, eventually graduating from Harvard Law School — where, in addition to his studies, he finished his first novel “Billy Tinker”.

After years in private practice in northern courts, he chose to become a prosecutor.

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“After years of fighting The Man, now he was The Man,” said Lyndon.

But he was there to help, not to put people away.

“He always looked for alternatives, as opposed to jail,” said retired judge Gerald Morin, a member of the Peter Ballantyne First Nation. “He tried to look at what was behind the actions of people.”

Eventually, that wasn’t enough. He lost faith in the justice system and left the law.

There were, however, the books — 11 of them, from non-fiction calls to action to genre-bending narrative to out-and-out fantasy.

His polemic “Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours)” was nominated for the 2016 Governor General’s Award.

“Clifford” (2018) was a bold mix of fact and fantasy inspired by the life of his older brother. His 2015 novel “Corvus”, a dystopia set in a world ravaged by climate change and war, was selected for CBC’s Canada Reads long list. He blended Cree and Nordic myth — drawing on both sides of his own background — for the fantasy novel “The Bjorkan Sagas”.

“Harold did not simply push the boundaries of literature, he rewrote them,” said a statement from House of Anansi Press, Johnson’s publisher.

“He wrote stories of reimagination and alternate futures, of light and exploration. It was a true pleasure to work with him and to be a part of bringing his books to the world.”

While he left the law, he didn’t leave his fellow Indigenous lawyers. Eleanore Sunchild, who represented Coulten Boushie’s family in a difficult, racially charged murder trial of the man who shot him, said Johnson’s support was vital to her.

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“I wasn’t a very popular person (during the trial),” she said. “Harold reached out to me and provided words of encouragement.”

Even when he was sick with the lung cancer that eventually killed him, he tried to educate the next generation of lawyers. Morin remembers him speaking to law students at the University of British Columbia, then getting on a plane to Toronto for his next round of treatments.

“He realized there was so much more to do and that he was not ready to die,” said Morin. “He was willing to give it one last shot.”

Eventually, though, acceptance came. Johnson called Morin a few days before his death to say goodbye.

“He knew what he was facing. He was at peace.”

Throughout his 68 years, Johnson kept his Cree heritage close to his heart. For much of his life, he lived in a cabin on a trapline an hour’s drive from the nearest town.

“He was so proud to be Indigenous,” said Sunchild, who first met Johnson at a round dance.

“He was a hunter, he was a trapper, he practiced ceremony, he knew his language. Despite the level of education that he received, he was able to maintain that connection to the land.”

And everyone who knew him remembers his laugh.

“He had quite a distinctive laugh,” Lyndon said.

“It started with a little grin,” Morin recalled.

It would come after he’d caught you off-guard, and the laugh would let you know his comment wasn’t serious, that the joke was on him. The laugh was in keeping with the man, said Sunchild.

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“He had a really genuine laugh.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2024.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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