Ken Johnson recently retired after 30 years of working as a drug and alcohol counsellor in his Indigenous community and is described as a humble and charismatic man by Esk’et ((Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins.
“He supported many people and he touched base with the next generation,” Robbins said of Johnson’s work at Esk’et. “He will be greatly missed and the individual who will take over will have big shoes to fill. He is known throughout the province for his work and generosity in sharing his wisdom.”
Born and raised at Esk’et, Johnson started drinking alcohol when he was nine years old and said he was a chronic alcoholic by the time he was 13.
“Some people say you have to hit rock bottom before you can make a change in your life, but I had a thousand bottoms during the 14 years I drank.”
He was in car accidents and ended up in jail due to his addictions. It would take a ‘spiritual awakening’ to set him on the road to sobriety, he said.
After drinking all weekend at a rodeo in the Chilcotin in 1974, Johnson sobered up on the Monday and realized he had missed the entire weekend.
“I said to my friend at the rate I was going I was not going to make it to 24 years old and told him I had to do something.”
When he arrived home at Esk’et, Freddy Johnson, who would later become his brother-in-law, brought him into Williams Lake to meet with Brother Ed Lynch, an Oblate brother and Alcoholic Anonymous (A.A.) counsellor at the time.
Lynch arranged for Johnson to go to an addiction treatment facility in Bonnyville, Alta.
While at treatment a counsellor told Johnson his recovery would begin once he left and encouraged him to go to A.A., Alateen and Alanon meetings.
When he resisted the temptation to join his friends drinking back in the community, one of them criticized Johnson for being ‘worse’ than they were.
“Funny enough I took that as a positive statement because it showed me that I had to stay strong.”
In 1984 he started helping others and it was then that he became a drug and alcohol counsellor, something he said he learned how to do as he went along.
He organized A.A. meetings, holding them on Thursdays and Sundays as well as extra meetings during the last two weeks of December to help people through Christmas.
“One year my wife and I only had three hours to do our Christmas shopping because we were having A.A. meetings three or four times a day.”
In 1992 he took a break from counselling and drove the school bus, but when a person in the community started relapsing from his sobriety, Johnson was asked by his brother-in-law to come back and work as a counsellor.
There were many times he received calls at all hours of the night from people asking him to help them.
One time he drove the 30 minutes into Williams Lake to pick up a young woman from Denny’s Restaurant who called him saying she was ready to ‘do something with her life.’
He arrived at 4 a.m. and when she saw him burst into tears because she did not think he would show up.
“She is still sober to this day,” he said.
Another time he travelled to Prince George to pick up a young man from Esk’et who had tried to kill himself and brought him to his home.
The next day Johnson gathered the young man’s friends and relatives, formed a circle, did a smudge and told the young man to tell his friends what had happened.
“Their responses were very powerful,” he recalled.
Robbins said Johnson was the first of many people to ‘call a spade a spade.’
“If someone talked to him about having a drinking problem, he’d ask ‘why reach for the bottle?’
Johnson is married to Edna Johnson and together they have three sons, plus many other children who they fostered over the years.
Aside from counselling, Johnson volunteered nine years with Williams Lake Community Policing and received its volunteer of the year award in 2004. In 2009 he received the Nechi Institute in Edmonton, Alta’s community award for counselling.
“It’s been a job where some days you are holding people’s lives in your hands and you have know what to say,” he said. “I also learned that every day I have to be teachable.”
Johnson credited his grandmother who raised him for teaching him how to be humble.
“She taught me to love unconditionally with no strings attached.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the community held a retirement party for him.
In attendance was retired manager of community safety for Williams Lake, Dave Dickson, who has known Johnson since 1992 through community policing.
“We sort of clicked and have been friends ever since. It was neat to attend his retirement party and see people get up and tell their story of how Kenny had led them to sobriety.”
Dickson said Johnson could have gone and worked anywhere, but instead chose to stay and work in his own community.
“He is a fine man.”