Alcohol is not just in our stories — the stories that kiciwamanawak first told about us and that some of us continue to tell and believe. You see, alcohol is also in kiciwamanawak stories, the stories they tell about themselves. However, it is told much differently: they are never “the lazy, drunk, white person” in their own stories of alcohol. To many kiciwamanawak, alcohol is an everyday thing. It’s a glass of wine with supper, or a beer or two while watching the game on television, or a glass of whiskey in the evening. To them, alcohol is natural, normal, and even necessary. In their story about alcohol, their social position determines the amount they spend on alcohol. The higher they are in their social and class structure, the more expensive the alcohol they must consume. In their story, if a person does not drink, it is automatically assumed they do not drink because they have a religious reason, or, more often, it is assumed it’s because they can’t handle it. Only alcoholics in their story do not drink. Healthy, normal people in that story often consume alcohol daily. Every significant event is marked by alcohol: birthdays, marriages, graduations, a sports team winning (or losing); even death is saluted with a drink, a toast.
To not drink in the kiciwamanawak story is to cut oneself off from important parts of the story. Their story and the alcohol story are so entangled that one becomes the other. The kiciwamanawak story becomes the alcohol story and the alcohol story becomes the kiciwamanawak story.
One of our relatives gets into trouble while drinking. He or she goes to court and is sentenced. The sentence is given to try to help the person with their problem with alcohol. The person is put on probation or given a conditional sentence. The conditions might be: report to a probation officer, reside at an approved residence, abide by a curfew from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m., refrain from the possession or consumption of alcohol, and attend addictions counselling and treatment. Then our relative goes to see the probation officer. The probation officers I have met typically are young; they will have had some formal education and will have attended a training course or two as part of their job. Most of them, though, I know to be drinkers. The probation officers typically are not from our community and they have their own story about alcohol. To them, alcohol is part of their existence. They don’t even really think about it — it’s so much part of their daily life. The probation officer’s job is to supervise the person on probation and make sure that person does all the things that are in the probation order. Usually, the person is ordered to report to the probation officer once a week. The probation officer normally flies into the community along with the judge and lawyers and clerk. They set up a table at the back of the community hall where court is being held and interview people who have been ordered to report. They will interview 30 to 40 people a day. The reporting usually takes only a few minutes.
The probation officer asks, “How’s it going?”
“I’m doing good, not getting in any trouble.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Have you gone for counselling?”
“If you don’t, you’re going to be in breach of your order. So you better get it done.”
And the person leaves, saying, “Yeah, I’ll make an appointment next week.”
Probation officers come in two types. One is there to enforce the probation order and file a breach-of-probation charge if the person doesn’t comply with all the conditions. The other type of probation officer is there to help the person get through the probation period without breaching. Regardless of the type of probation officer, whether they are there to act as probation police or whether they genuinely want to help, if, in their story, alcohol is normal, natural, maybe even necessary to the enjoyment of their daily life, they will be limited in their ability to effect change in the person reporting. I’ve frequently heard judges lecture people about drinking when they are sentencing: “You really have to get a handle on your drinking. You know every time you drink you get in trouble. If you keep going like this, you are going to end up in jail and I know you don’t want that.”
Then these same judges get on the plane, leaving the community with this advice, and yet, as I’ve said, they are pouring themselves a drink even before takeoff. And so here’s one of the problems, if we’re being frank and getting to the root: the person who is being sentenced, standing in front of the judge in the courtroom, or the person reporting to the probation officer at the back of the community hall, they know that the words spoken to them are not genuine, that the people speaking them don’t practise them. They’re empty words, without power. Hypocrisy — it comes through in the voice. You can hear it. The words are without meaning, they have no heart, no sincerity, no genuine feeling.
We cannot blame these judges and probation officers for their empty words. They see that the problem is always alcohol. It’s obvious. It repeats itself over and over every day in court, 50, 60, 70 times a day in docket court, and eight, nine, 10 times on trial days. Two or three times a month the court party flies into these communities, and the trial days and the docket days become a long string of stories of violence and abuse and damage: broken windows and kicked-down doors, black eyes and broken teeth and knife wounds and skulls cracked by whiskey bottles, until everyone involved just becomes numb and all they can do is repeat the obvious: “You have to quit drinking.” But the judges and probation officers who are numbed by the repetition are themselves drinkers, who live a story where alcohol is normal, natural, and necessary, and so they are simply incapable of putting any real meaning into their words. Their story, the story kiciwamanawak tell themselves about alcohol, cannot help us.
From the book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (And Yours) by Harold R Johnson, copyright © 2016. Reprinted by permission of University of Regina Press.
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