During his time as a Crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan, Harold Johnson saw firsthand the destruction alcohol has on the people who live there.
“Flying into northern communities, I saw 95 per cent of the work of the courts were generated by people who committed offenses while they were intoxicated by alcohol,” he said. “We weren’t dealing with criminality, we were just dealing with people who got drunk and did stupid things, up to and including committing atrocities.”
It was one day in late 2015 when Johnson was flying back to La Ronge from one such trip when Corrections and Policing Deputy-Minister, Dale McFee, happened to be on the same flight. Surprised to witness the impact liquor was having on those who reported to probations that day, he asked Johnson what the government could do to help.
“I said give me a six-month leave of absence,” he replied.
It was not longer after when Johnson, his wife Joan Johnson, and Carla Frohaug were hired to work on the Northern Alcohol Strategy starting January 2016. The three worked to compile information about alcohol usage in northern Saskatchewan and reached out to several groups such as the RCMP, Saskatchewan Health Authority, Ministry of Justice, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Town of La Ronge and Village of Air Ronge. It was in those discussion where the Community Alcohol Management Plan (CAMP) materialized.
While Johnson himself isn’t a member of CAMP, it’s comprised of the organizations stated above whose representatives meet regularly. Since then, Johnson said the group has been able to make several changes for those on the low end of the alcohol spectrum such as having the provincial liquor store provide Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines with every purchase, getting the RCMP to give similar information to those they arrest, and having an expert from Nova Scotia teach educators on how to approach young people about alcohol.
“What we’re trying to do is turn La Ronge into a treatment centre - the whole community - everybody working together,” he said. “We’re bringing a lot of people together to reduce the harms from alcohol across the entire spectrum.”
For those on the higher end of the alcohol-use spectrum, Johnson noted he’s hopeful the provincial government will provide funding for transdermal bracelets for those on court conditions for alcohol use. The bracelets detect when a person has consumed alcohol and would send a message to the RCMP alerting them to the fact. In every jurisdiction they’ve been used, he added there’s been drops in domestic violence, impaired driving and other rates.
So far in the tri-communities, there has been a reduction in crime, but it’s not yet known if its due to CAMP’s efforts. Johnson also stated there’s much more work being done, although some initiatives can’t be revealed at this time due to privacy reasons of those involved.
“This initiative has got legs of its own,” he said. “If we keep feeding it, it’s going to grow into something big. Maybe we can change the story we tell ourselves about alcohol.”
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