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Colonial History of Alcoholism in Indigenous Communities

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The tone of a social setting is often set by the alcohol which is consumed. Participants can use its significance to “manipulat[e]…cultural systems, values…and expectations”(‘Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking’). Early on in North America’s colonial history, traders used alcohol to acquire “sought-after skins and other resources” from Indigenous people (Beauvais 1998 253). Note the terms Aboriginal and Indigenous, here, this vocabulary specifically addresses First Nations people affected by the Indian Act and colonization. This does not always include Métis or Inuit people. Their relationships to the matters relevant to this paper warrant further exploration which, for lack of space, will not happen here. The rapid distribution of distilled spirits and wine set the stage for Indigenous and White relations for the following centuries. Introduction to Western culture through trading and drinking of high-proof spirits with frontiersmen normalized alcoholism among trading colonies (McPherson & Wakefield 174). Canada later viewed First Nations adopted consumption habits as Aboriginal inability to participate in Canadian economic growth, which engendered a paternalistic mindset over the course of colonization (Joseph 2018 43; King 2018 91). Canada would later legislatively perpetuate such paternalism through the Indian Act amendments of 1884. This mindset still affects First Nations and Non-Indigenous relations. To understand Aboriginal peoples’ contemporary struggles with alcohol and stereotypes imposed upon them, one must look at Canada’s history of consumption and distribution of alcohol. Establishing the root cause of the issue at hand can mend First Nations and Non-Indigenous relations in this country.

Scattered Indigenous communities in pre-contact North America practiced some consumption of alcohol, usually in the form of fermented corn or cactus beverages. This was typically associated with spiritual rituals or took place in specific ceremonial settings. These drinks would have had a low alcohol content (Frank, Moore, & Ames 2000 347-348). The social context in which one consumes alcohol creates associations with what, how, and how much one is to drink (‘Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking’). The social customs of Indigeous communities were not prepared for the norms that were to be introduced with colonization. Contact brought with it European traders to acquire sought after raw materials. Beauvais notes that frontiersmen quickly caught on to the trading abilities of their European high-proof brandies and wines and began trading these beverages for pelts (1998 253). “Traders also found that providing free alcohol during trading sessions gave them a distinct advantage in their negotiations.” (Beauvais 1998 253). This would be many Indigenous communities introduction to alcohol or its consumption in high volumes within a casual setting. These communities were simultaneously introduced to the grim of Europe’s social class: the antisocial trader (Frank, Moore, & Ames 2000 348).

“New World governments were unable to enforce sensible alcohol control policies… in frontier settings that were far from legislative centers. We suggest that these lawless edges of the new societies provided for intense role modeling of antisocial alcohol use” (Frank, Moore, & Ames 2000 348)

These were men away from their families, culture, and country and its code of laws. With nothing holding them to the established etiquette of consumption of their society across the ocean, many of the men sent to North America committed unsavory acts with little to no repercussions (Frank, Moore, & Ames 2000 348). North America began seeing many Indigenous communities plagued by lewd acts committed under the influence of alcohol that could not have been permissible without its introduction (Frank, Moore, & Ames 2000 348).

“Numerous historical accounts describe extremely violent bouts of drinking among Indian tribes during trading sessions and on other occasions, but at least as many accounts exist of similar behavior among the colonizing traders, military personnel, and civilians (Smart and Ogborne 1996). History may have therefore sown the seeds for the prevalence of alcohol abuse in North American indigenous populations. Early demand, with no regulation and strong encouragement, may have contributed to a “tradition” of heavy alcohol use passed down from generation to generation, which has led to the current high level of alcohol-related problems.”(Beauvais 1998 253)

This “tradition” as Beauvais puts it was later seen by Canadian legislative assemblies to impede the assimilation of First Nations into the country’s economic practices, such as farming (Joseph 2018 43).

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The learned alcoholism of these Aboriginal communities was one of many tools which colonial powers used to adopt a paternalistic control of Indigenous people. A term coined by Rudyard Kipling best encapsulates this mindset as the “White Man’s Burden,” that is: “To serve your captives’ need/…/ Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/ Half devil and half child” (Kipling; emphasis added). Canada took on Kipling’s “Burden” with its colonial hold over the “new-caught sullen” First Nations. The prohibition of sales of alcohol to Indigenous people was a performance of this paternal restraint. Note the following passage from an Indian Act amendment in 1884: “Every one who… on any pretense or by any device, (a) sells, barters, supplies or gives to any Indian or non-treaty Indian, or to any person male or female who is reputed to belong to a particular band, or who follows the Indian mode of life, or any child of such person any intoxicant ….shall… be liable to imprisonment”(“Indian Act” 1884)

The logic behind the government’s prohibition of alcohol sales to Indigenous people was protection of First Nations from themselves and the temptation of alcohol, as well as Canadians to not “rub elbows” with Aboriginals at drinking establishments (Joseph 2018 43). This line of reasoning subscribes to the condescending paternalism of the White man’s burden, to protect the nation’s Indigenous “child” from the “devil” which possessed the inebriated, rendering them both “[h]alf devil and half child” (Kipling; Frank, Moore, & Ames 2000 346). Prohibition laws often target the symptoms of an issue, rather than the issue itself. Alcohol consumption was not addressed. The frontiersmen influenced and subsequently intergenerational pattern of alcohol abuse remained. Prohibition only drove Indigenous people away from safe drinking establishments, and deprived them the privilege of consumption in healthy moderation (Joseph 2018 43). As civil rights progressed, more Canadians recognized these laws as oppressive.

The 1884 amendment to the Indian Act which prohibited the sale of alcohol to First Nations was contested after the Second World War. This pushback began when Canadian soldiers returned home from their military service, only to find that their Indigenous brothers-in-arms were forbidden entrance to Canadian legions. These legions provided veterans information on the benefits they had access to, as well as moral support for emotional turmoil, and what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. This inaccessibility of privileges to Indigenous veterans was mentioned in the Royal Commision on Aboriginal People and presented to the Canadian Government. Between 1946 and 1948 the Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons began to investigate the effects of the Indian Act. Rather than revoke the 1884 amendment following this legal pushback, the Canadian government went on to revise the amendment, criminalizing all Indigenous people found in possession of intoxicants or under their influence in 1951(Joseph 2018 43-45). Because Canada knew that “the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated”(Freire 74). Affirming that the government’s ultimate goal for Indigenous people was assimilation through legislation.

The Indian Act was also responsponsible for the creation of residential schools which forced Indigenous children to attend a government regulated “boarding school” up to the age of eighteen (“Indian Act” 1884). This school system followed the mandate to “Kill the Indian in the child”(Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). Some survivors of the residential school system turned to alcohol to forget the atrocities committed at these institutions. The use of alcohol as a coping mechanism was inadvertently inherited by later generations, and is still seen on reservations today. As explained by Bob Joseph, many communities recognize the issues of alcoholism they face, but are on the “healing” process of overcoming such adversities (2018 47). Despite working to solve the issue of alcohol consumption on reserves, many Aboriginal people still face descrimination from Canadian citizens. Although heavy drinking affects nearly 20% of all Canadians, First Nations are overrepresented as alcoholics, because, as Thomas King points out “they [non-Indigenous people] get to make their mistakes as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race” (Statistics Canada 2017; 2018 187). The key to fighting these racist stereotypes is through education on this subject. As stated by critical pedagogue Henry Giroux: “education produces the modes of literacy, critique, sense of social responsibility, and civic courage necessary to imbue young people with the knowledge and skills needed to enable them to be engaged critical citizens willing to fight for a sustainable and just society”(Giroux 2013)

The contemporary issue of alcoholism in First Nations communities is a multifaceted issue that cannot be dissected without proper consideration and education of Canada’s colonial past and present.

Distilled Alcohols and wines were introduced to Indigenous people living in North America by colonial settlers, imposing their way of life on the First Nations. Following the implementation of alcoholic and antisocial behaviors on the Aboriginal populations by the frontiersmen of Canada, the government was able to enact strict discriminatory laws to hold power over their subjects. Although Canadians have become increasingly aware of civil rights over the last decade, society has been unable to overcome their miseducation of First Nations issues. This delayed education on these matters perpetuates racially motivated stereotypes against Indigenous people. The effects of Canada’s history of colonization is seen in various parts of its past not covered in this paper for lack of space. Current issues involve missing and murdered aboriginal women, the ongoing reconciliation efforts, the acceptance of the reservation school system as a cultural genocide, and the construction of pipelines through reservation lands, to name a few. Piece by piece Canadians are building a better relationship with the First Nations communities whose lands they currently inhabit.

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Colonial History of Alcoholism in Indigenous Communities. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 28, 2023, from
“Colonial History of Alcoholism in Indigenous Communities.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Colonial History of Alcoholism in Indigenous Communities. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Sept. 2023].
Colonial History of Alcoholism in Indigenous Communities [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Sept 28]. Available from:
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