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Cameron Freeman

Define or be defined: Constructing indigenous identities for health and well being

As an underlying government strategy to assimilate and civilize Natives, the tactics of alcohol regulation has been, and continues to be used as an instrument to shape the myth of the "drunken Indian" as part of the social imaginary, and thus provides a civilizing discourse that can be used to effectively mask overt assimilation strategies, deflect attention from the real causes of social unrest and dysfunction in many Aboriginal communities, and justify bureaucratic surveillance and interventions into the lives of Indigenous peoples of Canada.

From a Settler-colonial perspective, Aboriginal peoples of Canada are like "primitive children" needing government control and regulation. Furthermore, Aboriginals present Canadian bureaucrats with a two-front "Indian problem" (Tait 2000:199). First, Aboriginal resistance to assimilation and modernization underscored by protests by First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups over loss of land, resources and collective autonomy with calls for justice, apologies, compensation and self-determination provokes a great deal of animosity by non-Aboriginal to the "Indian problem."  Secondly, a plethora of social issues and health problems inundating many Aboriginal communities generates uncomfortable attention on the role of Canadian colonialism in causing the "Indian problem" and underlines benefits to the state in framing itself as a moral intervenor (Tait 2000:199).

Since the Indian Act of 1868, liquor control was used to police boundaries and assert racial ideology that forced Indigenous peoples into marginalized social and cultural niches (Thompson & Genosko 2009). Moreover, the legal classification of "Indian" tied to an Interdiction List, which would later become known as the "Indian list", would mediate pejorative perceptions and conceptualizations of First Nation peoples. Furthermore, Interdiction legislation would produce a legal description of "Indian", which would be used in court cases within Canadian law to describe "Indian" as having a particular susceptibility to, and likely to be injured by, the use of liquor or intoxicants (Thompson & Genosko 2009).

Ironically, there is no evidence that suggests that Native peoples have a genetic propensity towards alcohol abuse. In fact, the phenomena of alcohol abuse is more linked to poor economic conditions, and when alleviated, the outcome is a decrease in alcohol abuse (Thompson & Genosko 2009). However, there is evidence to show that Interdiction legislation not only constructs the stereotype of the "Drunken Indian", it is responsible for constructing the social conditions, which facilitated alcohol abuse by Aboriginals. For example, the prohibition of alcohol on the reserves made it illegal for Natives to drink in their own homes, so, forced to go into town, they would spend their money on drinking binges, and being highly inebriated with no means of getting home, they would loiter drunk in the streets of Kenora, thus perpetuating the "Drunken Indian" myth (Maxwell 2011: 1). Furthermore, settler anxieties are exacerbated by drunken Native behaviour producing racist attitudes by the local police which lead to the incarceration of a disproportionate number of Indigenous people for liquor offenses, thus criminalizing the Native and further reinforcing the myth of Aboriginals as a drunken, criminal, vagrant, and an irresponsible people (Maxwell 2011: 4). This racist, discriminatory stereotype could then be used to explain why Aboriginal communities are so dysfunctional, with a myriad of social issues and health problems. Moreover, this constructed notion of the "drunken Indian" as a determinant in Native dysfunctionalism, strategically deflects attention from the broader picture of intrusive colonial practices that have disrupted Indigenous lifestyles and threatened livelihoods, including land dispossession, residential schools, restrictions on trapping, hunting and fishing, industrial pollution and the growth of the welfare state (Maxwell 2011:3).

Settler society views health and social problems as the cause of economic problems. In this discourse, dominant society avoids blame for the structural violence it imposes on marginalized peoples—putting the onus upon the individual (Tait 2009:199). In the 1980s, a widely held belief, propagated by the media and government policy makers and health researchers, suggested the majority of Aboriginal women were subjecting their fetuses to dangerous levels of alcohol and other drug substances, which lead to the construction of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Although there was no real evidence-based science to support FAS, replacing the "civilizing the Native" discourse with a more potent and politically-palatable medical explanation could be used as scientific leverage to explain a host of Aboriginal problems, including criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, school dropout and the proliferation of teen pregnancies. Furthermore, this constructed identity of sick and dysfunctional Aboriginal communities could be used to show how the Native is unable to cope with modern Euro-Canadian living and justify further colonial intrusions under the guise of identification, prevention and treatment/intervention (Tait 2009: 199).

In order to defend Native culture from further subjugation, I posit, to circumvent the hegemonic discourses of non-Indigenous culture, Aboriginal identity must reframe itself from both a local and national context. Achieving a successful Indigenous self-determined society will require the credibility of doctorate-trained Native psychologists and applied medical anthropologists, who are recognized by the dominant society.  Natives with academic credentials can assert greater power to assist their communities by providing effective bridging between Canadian Governments services, conceptualizing culturally appropriate economic, social and health programs and services adapted for Native experiences, legitimizing Native organizational structures, and serving as creative administrators, program developers, local researchers and clinical supervisors (Gone 2009:435).


Gone, Joseph P. (2009). "Encountering Professional Psychology: Re-Envisioning Mental Health Services for Native North America." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 419-439.

Maxwell, K. (2011). Ojibwe Activism, Harm Reduction and Healing in 1970s Kenora, Ontario: a Micro-history of Canadian Settler Colonialism and Urban Indigenous Resistance. Comparative Programme on Health and Society Working Paper Series.

Tait, Caroline (2009) Disruptions in Nature, Disruptions in Society: Aboriginal Peoples of Canada and the "Making" of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 196-218

Thompson, S., & Genosko, G. (2009) LCBO and First Nations People in Punched drunk : alcohol, surveillance, and the L.C.B.O., 1927-75 Black Point, N.S.: Fernwood Publishers.