In Canada, over 1.3 million people identify themselves as having some Aboriginal ancestry (Wardman & Quantz, 2005). They make up 4.4% of the total population and are mostly concentrated in the North and Prairie provinces. A major concern for Aboriginal communities in Canada is Alcohol abuse which disproportionately affects these people compared to the rest of the Canadian population. Tait (2003) laments that alcohol abuse has had a devastating effect on the Aboriginals in Canada.
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This paper will argue that colonization has significantly contributed to the alcoholism problem among First Nations communities. To buttress this assertion, the paper will review the alcohol consumption trends of the Aboriginal before colonization. The paper will then assess the impacts of alcoholism and review a strategy that has been successfully implemented to mitigate alcoholism among the Aborigines. An analysis of why this community-based intervention model worked will also be made.
Alcohol Consumption before Colonization
Long before the Europeans made contact with the Native Americans, alcohol was consumed by many Aboriginal groups. The alcohol consumed by the Aboriginals was 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 (Tait, 2003).
However, alcohol was closely linked to socially prescribed customs and rites. French (2008) notes that fermented corn beer which was the most common alcoholic drink was an integral component of rites including religious sacrifices. This fact is corroborated by Tait (2003) who states that intoxication in pre-colonization time was rare since alcohol was used primarily for religious ceremonies.
The alcohol consumption patterns of Aboriginals changed significantly in the centuries following the discovery of North America by the renowned 15th Century explorer, Christopher Columbus. From then, many Europeans began making expeditions to explore the continent and these expeditions resulted in the establishing of contact between the North American natives and the Europeans. This contact resulted in significant changes in the local traditions as the new arrivals settled and traded with the natives.
Introduction of alcohol to the Aborigines by Europeans is traced back to the late 17th century when French fur traders used gifts of alcohol to entice indigenous trappers to trade with them (Tait, 2003). With time, giving and trading of alcohol became a part of fur trading activities.
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, 2009). Introduction of alcohol had a deleterious effect on the indigenous people.
The drinking patterns of the Aborigines commonly took the form of binging, spending whole days drinking. Problems such as sexual assaults, breakdown of marriages and food deprivation became prevalent as both men and women engaged in consumption of alcoholic beverages (Trait, 2003).
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 result of the lessons learned from the social problems it had created. Tait (2003) notes that some of the trading partners explicitly requested that alcohol should not be made available to the band members.
Impacts of Alcohol Consumption among the Aboriginals
The Indigenous population in Canada is uniquely affected by alcohol compared to the general population since they tend to either abstain from alcohol or fully indulge. Survey data documents that 34% of the Aboriginal population abstains from alcohol use compared with 21% for the general population (Anderson, 2007). However, Aboriginal drinkers are twice as likely to binge drink as the rest of the population. This excessive alcohol consumption among the Aborigines is associated with a myriad of negative socio economic impacts.
Alcohol consumption predisposes the person to perpetrate action of violence. 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 repeat offenders 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 family member.
Research indicates that in Canada, there is a high rate of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations within the Aboriginal population compared to the general population. Anderson (2007) documents that during the last decade of the 20th century, alcohol contributed to 40% of accidental and violent Aboriginal deaths in British Columbia. This is in contrast to 16% of accidental and violent deaths attributed to alcohol among the other British Columbia residents.
There is a relationship between alcohol abuse and the mortality of the Aboriginals. Alcohol use in Aboriginal communities has been associated with increased rates of injury and mortality. Research reveals that 50-60% of illness and death among the Aboriginal population in Canada are attributed to alcohol misuse (Tait, 2003).
The indigenous people die earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts due to excessive consumption of alcohol. The death rate due to cirrhosis of the liver is 2.6 times higher among Aboriginals than the general population (Tait, 2003).Self-inflicted injuries such as suicides are also high among Aboriginals as a result of alcohol abuse.
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Excessive consumption of alcohol has also been blamed for most social and emotional breakdowns. Wardman and Quantz (2005) states that as a result of binge drinking, many Aboriginals experienced family disconnect. This is because the personal skills of the person where inhibited by excessive alcohol consumption.
Children also suffer as a result of the alcohol abuse by their parents. This suffering is in the form of abuse and neglect by their parents (Tait, 2003). Research by Wardman and Quantz (2005) showed that most Aboriginals who engaged in excessive alcohol consumption had a family history of alcoholism, as well as childhood abuse. This demonstrates that an individual’s background may have a negative impact their own drinking behaviors.
Causes of Alcoholism
Compelling arguments have been made that alcohol abuse was adopted by Aboriginal people to help deal with the colonization by the Europeans. These arguments are reinforced by the fact that alcohol was introduced by Europeans in their attempt to gain control over Aboriginal resources and territory (Tait, 2003). A number of government policies have been blamed for the alcohol abuse experienced by 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, 2011).” This act was introduced in 1876, and it allowed the Canadian government to have total control over the lifestyle of all Indians and their mode of interactions with the non-Indians.
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 government was also empowered to look after the lands, education and health of these people.
The act stated the rights and protections the Indians were subject to which include; 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.
In 1951, the government agreed to abolish the existing Act and introduce a new one. This move was prompted following a federal report which exposed the suffering and extreme poverty levels of the Aboriginal society. Following this, 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. French (2008, p.155) theorizes that the 150 years of strictly enforced prohibitions against traditional rituals, including the use of alcohol, were partly responsible for the current problem of high alcoholism among the Aboriginal.
In the early 1980s, the Canadian Federal government tried hard to convince the Aboriginals that they needed to get an education in order to become productive members of the society. This assertion was partly 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 adopting the European way of life. It was hoped that the European culture would be adopted by the natives and the primitive native traditions would disappear in a few generations.
The Canadian Federal government therefore 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 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.
The major problem in these schools was that, right from their conception, the Aboriginal culture was considered inferior and that with it, they would be totally 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. Tait (2003) theorizes that residential schools resulted in psychological distress and many individuals turned to alcohol abuse as a way to block out the distress they suffered.
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 would finally go home, they would found it difficult to fit in and became ashamed of their native heritage. Anderson (2007) maintains that the residential school system which was aimed at assimilation contributed to the breakdown of traditional culture and family therefore creating an environment which was conducive to problematic alcohol use.
Culturally Appropriate Community-based Intervention
It can be seen that alcohol abuse has adverse socio-economic and health impacts on the Aboriginals. It is therefore imperative that steps be taken to mitigate alcoholism and therefore improve the conditions of the Aboriginals. The historical issues therefore fuel distrust towards dominant culture solutions to the Aboriginal alcohol problems (Anderson, 2007). Culturally appropriate intervention schemes have however proven to be effective in dealing with alcoholism among native populations.
The Alkali Lake Community Case
The Alkali Lake Community Case is an inspiring case about how alcoholism was overcome through the efforts of the community. According to the elders, there was no alcohol drinking before 1940 on the reserve (4Worlds, 2011). However, the situation changed at right before the beginning of the Second World War when general stores and trading posts were set up at Alkali Lake by European immigrants to the area.
The Aboriginals exchanged fur in the stores for other merchandise or sold it for cash. Not unlike in the pre-colonial years, the immigrants introduced alcohol to soften the Aboriginals in the cause of negotiations. Once alcohol had become a part of the community, there was a gradual shift in the health of the people and they succumbed to illnesses (4Worlds, 2011).
Other pressures also mounted as the children in the Alkali Lake Community were sent integrated into the residential school system. The children were 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.
At the residential schools, children were subjected to bullying and there was wide spread sexual abuse of the students. When these students returned home after months of schooling, they could not fit in because they had not been taught their traditional family values and virtues. The residential school system students found it hard to grasp the concept of parenting and family life since they had been deprived of it by being taken away from their parents.
These people were therefore more vulnerable to over consumption of alcohol (Anderson, 2007). Overconsumption of alcohol negatively impacted the community as, all the money received from the government as social assistance, was wasted on alcohol. Selling of alcohol therefore became a very profitable venture in this region (4Worlds, 2011). Illegal selling of alcohol was also wide spread. It was accessible to underage children so long as they had money.
Despite their social degradation, the Alkali Lake Community people were able to stop alcohol consumption and begin a new life of prosperity. This positive step began 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. The mother, on hearing that promised to quit, went back home and poured all liquor on the floor. For 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.
The new chief implemented community oriented measures which resulted in the Alkali people becoming alcohol free. 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 (4Worlds, 2011).
Why the Alkali Community Solution Worked
The Alkali Community solution ensured that the entire community could not access alcohol by banning the sale of alcohol in the community. Reduced availability ensured that people could no longer engage in negative activities like binge drinking.
This helped to reduce consumption since Wardman and Quantz (2005) demonstrate that having a social network of individuals who drink heavily is a risk factor for binge episodes. The new chief also refused entry of the Dog Creek Stage who was the main distributor of alcohol in the community.
Treatment was offered to the members of the community who suffered from alcoholism. The treatment offered was sensitive to the community’s need and the clinical staff was well versed with Aboriginal culture. Tait (2003) asserts that the strengths in Aboriginal identity and traditional practices can be harnessed to holistically address the alcoholic problem within Aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal alcohol abuse is connected to powerlessness and economic impoverishment which came about from colonization. The economic situation of the people must therefore be addressed for any rehabilitation effort to be of use. In recognition of this, the treatment efforts by the Alkali Lake community were integrated with economic empowerment. When a person went through the treatment program, they were given a job to ensure that they could afford a decent living (4worlds, 2011).
Tait (2003) reiterates that interventions which are aimed solely at the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause of the problem will only work for a short while. The Alkali Community realized that alcoholism was a symptom of a deeper issue and therefore incorporated cultural and spiritual aspects in the healing process. This resulted in the rediscovery of native traditions which led to culture and moral values being reintroduced into the society.
This paper set out to demonstrate that colonization contributed to alcoholism among the Aboriginal of Canada. From the findings in this paper, it is evident that alcoholism was not an issue in First Nations Communities before colonization. It can therefore be surmised that the alcoholism problem stems from European influence on the communities.
The paper has demonstrated that the unfair Government policies have also contributed to the alcoholism problem by the Aboriginal communities. The alcoholism has contributed greatly to the social ills that afflicted the Aboriginal communities. However, positive change can be achieved through community-level interventions which can reduce alcohol abuse. Healing can come about if the intervention effort has the support of the Aboriginals and takes into consideration the socio-economic issues that cause alcoholism.
4Worlds. (2011). The Alkali Lake Community Story. Web.
Anderson, J.F. (2007). Screening and brief intervention for hazardous alcohol use within Indigenous populations: Potential solution or impossible dream? Addiction Research and Theory, 15(5): 439–448.
French, A.L. (2008). Psychoactive agents and Native American spirituality: Past and present. Contemporary Justice Review, 11 (2): 155–163.
Indian Act of Canada (2011). The Pages of Shades-Native Americans. Web.
Smillie, C. (Dec 16, 2009). Aboriginal alcohol addiction in Ontario Canada: A look at the history and current healing methods that are working in breaking the cycle of abuse. Indigenous Policy Journal. Web.
Tait, C.L. (2003). Fetal alcohol syndrome among Aboriginal people in Canada: Review and analysis of the intergenerational links to residential schools. Ottawa, Ontario Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Wardman, D., & Quantz, D. (2005). An exploratory study of binge drinking in the Aboriginal population. The Journal of the National Center, 12 (1): 49-61.