The native tribes of Canada include the Inuit, The Metis and the First Nations. The term ‘First Nations’ is widely used to describe Canadian Aborigines who fall in neither of the above two groups. The Inuit comprises of indigenous people leaving in the colder regions of Canada, the Arctic, Russia, and Alaska in United States. The Metis people are the direct descendants of the mixed First Nations.
The characteristics of their civilization included strict traditional networks and values, highly developed societal hierarchies, agricultural practice and permanent settlements.
Aborigines and alcohol consumption
Before their colonization by the Europeans, the Aboriginal people took alcoholic drinks made from various plants with relatively low alcoholic content. These included; alcoholic drinks made from the purple orchid tree and honey, pandas plant which would be soaked and pounded to make alcohol, mien cider gum, fermented honey, and the coconut. After the Europeans invasion, alcohol consumption patterns among the Aboriginals changed drastically.
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The Europeans brought trade. The Aborigines traded with fur for other essential commodities brought by the Europeans. As this trade developed, the Europeans started to use alcoholic drinks as a bargaining tool to soften the fur traders on their prices. “Alcohol was used as an inducement to participate, as a medium of exchange, and as a standard of competitive access.” (Smillie, Dec 16, 2009) The drinking patterns of the Aborigines commonly took the form of binging, spending whole days drinking. Women were also involved in excessive drinking and intoxication and this largely resulted in increased acts of violence and the eventual neglect of the children’s welfare. The women would engage in prostitution, which in turn affected childrearing and accelerated the birth rate of mixed race children who usually were abandoned by their European fathers.
It is however instructive to note that alcohol consumption was later abolished, and the Aborigines largely abstained from it. This compliance to the abolition was, to a large extent a result of the lessons learned from the social problems it had created. Furthermore, even some of the trading partners requested that alcohol should not be made available to the band members.
Impacts of alcohol consumption among the Aboriginals
The following socio-economic impacts were normally associated with the Aboriginal people who consumed alcohol excessively;
Let us take a look into Australia’s case, which bears great similarity to that in Canada, (this source was selected due of its readily available data and its similarities with Canada’s case)
Violence: According to a new study that finds alcohol as the biggest risk factor (Sharp, April 9, 2010), indigenous people are up to 20 times more likely than the rest of the population to commit violent crime. According to a criminologist, most of the arrests made of indigenous people were due to minor physical assault, more than sexual abuse, and that these offenders were much more likely to repeat their actions on non-indigenous people. It was also found out that; a violent act against an indigenous person was most likely to be perpetrated by a fellow indigenous person, most likely f a family member. From the police data used, it was found that the apprehension figures for indigenous people were 20 times higher than those for the non-indigenous.
These violent acts were found to have direct link to excessive consumption of alcohol. This reinforces an indigenous lawyer Noel Pearson’s view that alcohol consumption should have been tackled directly, through the formation of protective factors such as family links, coping skills and cultural resilience, rather than seen as a consequence of their past oppression by the colonialists (Sharp, April 9, 2010).
Mortality: The indigenous people of Australia on average die earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. This is partly attributable to excessive consumption of alcohol. It is estimated that 7% of these deaths, are as a direct result of alcoholism. The Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision also estimated that alcohol related deaths among these peoples were 5 – 20 times more than among their non-indigenous counterparts in WA, NT and SA.
Self-inflicted injuries such as suicides are also high among these people, and alcohol has also been deemed to contribute a considerable percentage of these; with 40% and 30% of the male and female population respectively falling victim. Between 2000– 2004, the figures for the males and females who died from alcohol related suicides were 159 and 27 respectively, compared to the non-indigenous Australians whose figures were 123 and 27 respectively. This is a major source of concern given that the indigenous people comprise of only 3% of the entire Australian population (Wilson, 2010).
Social breakdown: excessive consumption of alcohol has also been blamed for most social and emotional breakdowns. For example, Tyson and colleagues found that of the 4% of females and 9% of males with an alcohol use disorder in the general Australian population, 48% and 34% respectively, also met the criteria for anxiety, affective or drug use disorder. While there appears not to be any directly comparable studies for Indigenous Australians, it is likely that comorbid conditions occur more frequently among this population.
To date, most of these indigenous people, both male and female, have been hospitalized for mental disorders associated with alcohol use, whose figures are 3-4 times higher than those of the non-indigenous population (Wilson, 2010).
Other impacts of alcohol among the Aboriginals include; theft and crime, accidents and deaths, unemployment, community breakdown and fetal alcohol syndrome, all of which are high among these people compared to the rest of the non-indigenous population.
Other problems that affected the Aboriginals
The Indian Act of Canada
“Indian Act of Canada, law designed to integrate Indians in Canada into the mainstream economy and culture (Indian Act of Canada, n.d).” This act was introduced in 1876, which allowed the Canadian government to have total control over the lifestyle of all Indians and their mode of interactions with the non-Indians. It was also given the power to look after the lands, education and health of these people. In 1951, the government agreed to abolish the existing Act and introduce a new one, after revelations of the suffering caused to the Indians came to the limelight occasioning a public uproar. However, despite the drastic measures taken, not all power was removed from the hands of the government, thus resulting in impacts different from what was anticipated. This further led to isolation of the Indians from the rest population.
How the Act was passed; the establishment of Canada as a confederate state took place in 1867. It was done under a constitutional Act that gave it massive power over the lives of the Aboriginal people, including their property and lands. This was followed by the formation of many Aboriginal-related laws in the following years. By 1876, these laws were so many, that for ease of interpretation and implementation, the government decided to consolidate all of them to a single Act, known as the Indian Act. This Act gave definition on who was and was not Indian, basing lifestyle as its selection criteria. Thus it was the government’s prerogative to decide on who was and was not an Aboriginal Indian.
The act stated the rights and protections the Indians were subject to, which included; fishing, hunting, education and healthcare which were state funded. The Indians were also protected from land grabbing by the white settlers and the non-Indians, but were denied the opportunity to govern themselves and to acquire Canadian citizenship. Thus, they could not participate in public functions such as voting in federal elections, business and commerce, land ownership, consumption of alcohol, and freedom of movement from their reserves without government permission.
Despite its apparent segregation, the Act aimed at assimilating the Indians into the European lifestyle, giving guidelines which if any Indian could meet, he or she would be rewarded with Canadian citizenship.
The reformation of the Act: The Act was later reformed in 1956 after World War II, which had proved that the Indian men were equally good soldiers in the battle field, an indication of their unwavering service to the Canadian Army. Further, the release of a federal report that exposed the extreme poverty levels of the Indian community caused a public uproar that led the government to revise the Act in 1951. The level of power and control of the federal agents was reduced, and the Indian people were given some level of self-governance. They were also allowed to consume alcohol, move out of their reserves without government permission and participate in any business activity. Further amendment saw the Indians allowed to vote by 1962. By 1985, they were not forced to reveal their identity in any circumstance, and by 1990 the Indians had gained more ground on self-governance.
In the early 1980s, the Canadian Federal government tried hard to convince the Aboriginals that they needed schools in order to become important and productive individuals in the society. This was as a result of the government’s deep rooted belief that it was its responsibility to take care of the Aboriginals and educate them. The government believed that the only chance at success lay in the natives’ learning English and therefore adopting the European way of life. They had to learn the Canadian customs as well as convert to Christianity. This adopted lifestyle would be passed down to their children and grandchildren, and the primitive native traditions would disappear in a few generations. Thus the Canadian Federal government developed an attitude of aggression towards its assimilation policy by ensuring it was preached in churches and taught in the government schools, which were later transformed into residential schools. The boarding school programs were initiated because it was felt that it would be easy to convert and shape children than adults under similar circumstances, in preparation for them to join the mainstream societal lifestyle. These schools ; residential schools, were government funded and placed under the care of the Department of Indian affairs which oversaw the running of its daily activities including the learning exercises for its Aboriginal students. Attendance to these schools was made mandatory and thus the government employed agents to enforce these orders.
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“Initially, about 1,100 students attended 69 schools across the country. In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in Canada (Residential Schools: A History of Residential Schools in Canada, May 16, 2008).” At the time of closing of these schools in 1996, there were about a total of 130 schools in each province and a total of about 150,000 children of Aboriginal descent who had been forcefully removed from their communities to attend these schools.
The major problem in these schools was that, right from their conception, the Aboriginal culture was considered inferior, and that with it, they would totally be unable to modernize and therefore adapt to the developed society. Therefore, there was a strong believe that children would bridge this gap should they shun that ‘primitive’ lifestyle and get exposure to developed society. That they would learn and accustom themselves to these new changes, by conversion to Christianity and speaking of English or French. These students were thus discouraged from using their first language as a medium of communication, or practicing any traditions.
The living conditions in these schools were substandard and students were subjected to constant bullying and sexual harassment. Children would stay away from their parents for more than 10 months, and correspondence from the children was done in English which their parents didn’t understand. When children finally would go home, they found it difficult to fit in and therefore became ashamed of their native heritage. Further, the education and training received was minimal meaning that they could not survive in an urban setting. Thus, the objectives of these programs meant devastation to these children.
This resulted in opposition, demonstrations and formation of commission of inquiries that investigated the matter. This later culminated to government agreeing to abolish the system and compensate its victims in 2007, where $1.9 billion was initially set aside as compensation package.
Community based intervention
A case scenario is presented here below, that shows how a combination of the above stated problems resulted to an increase in alcohol consumption, which thus led to moral degradation of a community, and how the problem was eventually solved.
Let’s consider a case study of the Alkali lake community story.
According to the elders, there was no alcohol drinking before 1940 on the reserve. But “just before World War II, a general store and trading post was set up at Alkali Lake by a European immigrant to the area. The people brought their furs to the store and received cash or merchandise, such as food staples, in exchange” (The Alkali Lake Community Story, n.d). The traders then introduced alcohol to soften them during negotiations. Once it entered the community, there was gradually shift in the health of the people, as many fell sick. Other pressures started mounting also as a result of the residential school system that saw many children sent away from their homes.
These children would grow far away from their parents and family lifestyle, forced to abandon their first language for English or French. They were also taught that they cultures were ‘primitive’ compared to those of the Europeans, and therefore they had no choice but to leave them. Their conversion to Christianity was also made mandatory against their spiritual believes. These led to the Alkali people believing that unless they are converted into white race, they were of no good to the society. These beliefs were demonstrated in every facet of life, even to their subconscious level.
Another major blow of these residential schools was the introduction of massive bullying that often accompanied both physical and emotional torture, and the wide spread sexual abuse of the students.
When these students later returned home after months of schooling to start their own lives, they could not fit in because they had not been taught their traditional family values and virtues, and because they themselves had not been parented, they found it hard to grasp the concept of parenting and family life in general. Hence these people were more vulnerable to over consumption of alcohol which they did without control, making them violent and committed to more crimes. In 1965-1985, life in this society was unbearable. It was the height of all negative impacts of life pressures coupled with overconsumption of alcohol. “As one prominent community member put, “We had become what others called us: the Indians of Alcohol Lake.” Most of the people were so immersed in this reality that they were unable to “see” any other possibility for themselves. As another young man put it, “I thought that was how Indians lived” (The Alkali Lake Community Story, n.d).
Economically, all the money received from the government as social assistance, was wasted on alcohol, and hence stores selling alcohol made tremendous profits from this region. Illegal selling of alcohol was also wide spread. It was accessible to underage children so long as they had money.
Despite their social degradation, these people were willing to stop alcohol consumption and begin a new life of prosperity. This, however did not happen until in 1972 when a new chief by the name of Andy Chelsea was elected. A story is told of Andy’s daughter, Ivy Chelsea who refused to live with her mother until she quit drinking. Her mother, on hearing that, promised to quit. She went back home and poured all liquor on the floor. Four days later, the father also quit, thus becoming the first two non-alcoholic drinkers in the Alkali community. The following seven years, other people also quit and joined Andy and his wife Phyllis, in an effort to bring some sanity within the community. The community desire to quit its consumption saw Andy elected as the chief of the Alkali community in 1972.
Solution to alcohol problem: As a chief, Andy took various steps including; banning the sale of alcohol in the community. He then thus refused entry of the Dog Creek Stage who was the main distributor of alcohol in the community, bringing it three times a week.
He ensured that the sale of alcohol to minors was stopped. He called the RCMP who used marked bills to track these sellers, and ensured that they were arrested and their businesses put out. He also oversaw their severe punishment, which acted as a warning to others who thought of venturing into similar business.
A voucher system was introduced that saw people with drinking disorder not allowed carrying cash but, their money converted to vouchers that were exchanged for food and other basic needs in the stores.
Those who were caught committing crimes, both violent and non-violent under the influence of alcohol were given choice to book treatment or face a jail term. Since many people feared imprisonment, they chose treatment.
Andy also sort help from the church to help eradicate alcohol consumption by approaching a priest of the Catholic Church. As it turned out, the priest was also an alcohol addict, and was actively fanning opposition against the chief. In light of those revelations, he was expelled from the community.
At first, these measures were met with extreme opposition coupled with great anger and hostility from many community members. But by 1975, 40% of the community’s population had been set free from alcohol consumption and by 1979, 98% of the Alkali people were clean and sober.
The combinations of excessive consumption alcohol and the unfair Acts, instituted by the government, contributed greatly to the social ills that afflicted the Aboriginal communities. But through strict discipline, as indicated in the case study, it was possible to overcome the alcohol consumption problem, and through revision of the Acts by the parliament, the Aboriginal livelihoods have since improved.
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