Working Back from the Curse of Alcohol

Updated: Jul 27, 2021


When discussing Indigenous issues with non-indigenous people, the conversation often takes a turn towards the issue of alcoholism. Many of our people suffer from addictions such as drugs, alcohol, sex, and gambling, with alcohol being the prevalent addiction for many.


In 1534, Jacques Cartier landed on the shores of the St. Lawrence at what is now known as Quebec City, celebrating his arrival with bread and wine. Alcohol was initially offered to the Indigenous People of this land through this innocent European custom; however, before long, alcohol consumption became a key aspect of the relationship between European newcomers and FNMI People.

As history unfolded, alcohol poisoned white-Indian relations as its use and abuse became widespread. As one reporter stated, the Natives became drunk “and [were] given to much beastliness, and void of all goodness.””[1] However, this could have been said of anyone who drank as much alcohol as was given to FNMI People. The arrival of the fur trade resulted in overhunting and a shortage of pelts leading traders to depend upon alcohol to secure better deals with the Natives. By 1874, as many as fifty thousand bison robes were reportedly being exchanged for American rum in Canada’s Fort Qu’Appelle region.


Treaties brought about prohibition laws, but the Indian Act inadvertently promoted alcohol abuse. The trauma inflicted on families whose children were sent away to be educated created conditions that were right for alcohol to become the ‘drug of choice’ among FNMI People. Some say that FNMI (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit) People are built differently than other humans, making it impossible for them to process alcohol. This is wrong. FNMI People have no physical variances that cause them to process alcohol any different than non-Indigenous people.


Alcoholism initially came about largely due to social shortcomings. Normally, when people are introduced to alcohol during their late teens or early adulthood, it is under the guidance of a parent. They are taught to limit themselves to no more than a few drinks, to not drink with strangers, to find safe transportation home, etc.. However, the people that introduced alcohol to FNMI People did not have our best interest in mind. Rather, they gave alcohol to obtain better deals during the fur trade, and some of the treaties even involved alcohol. Ultimately, the more alcohol that was given to our people, the better it was for the fur traders that got better deals, for government that used it to achieve favorable treaty agreements, and for the settlers who received grants of stolen land.


1879 came with legislation of Indian Residential Schools. The Catholic Church held many of the contracts to run these schools where all forms of abuse notoriously ran rampant. The problems in which abuse grew were fourfold. 1) Many of the priests and nuns that worked in these schools, were themselves survivors of the Industrial Residential Schools in Ireland where they experienced the same types of abuse some of them came to dole out. In those days, society largely did not understand that hurt people hurt people . 2) We also did not understand much about pedophilia Specifically, that pedophiles tend to search out conditions that surround them with children, such as the Indian Residential Schools. 3) Many gay men sought solace within the celibacy policies of the Catholic Church. However, the main ministry of the day involved working at the Indian Residential Schools, where gay priests were surrounded by young men and boys that proved to be more of a temptation than some could handle. 4) The Government of Canada saw FNMI People as sub-human, so felt no guilt when they turned a blind eye to all of the above and instituted the starvation and study of poor nutrition in Indian Residential Schools. Abuse and death were rampant within these schools that afforded no parental protection.


For many Indigenous People, drinking became a way to forget. Sadly, instead of forgetting, alcohol consumption opens neural pathways to depression. It alleviates anxiety as it lowers our inhibitions, and we become prone to acting out the violence that was beget upon us through colonialism. Sometimes, we act out that violence against our spouses, our children, and ourselves leading us to take our own lives.


On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Harper apologized for the damages done by the residential school system. This apology has gone a long way to initiating first steps towards reconciliation but saying sorry does not automatically make everything better. People often state, "we apologized, so why don’t they just get over it?” Think of it this way, when you break a plate, the plate remains broken even after apologizing to it. The same goes for human beings; we do not simply become functioning humans again just because the Prime Minister of Canada apologizes.


The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Score asserts that when a child experiences too many adverse experiences, the DNA in their brain changes from the trauma, making it impossible for them to ‘just get over it’. We carry the effects of our past into our future resulting in overrepresentation in mental illness, addiction, abuse, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, sexual exploitation, child welfare, correctional services, and the like. We cannot ‘just get over it’, but we can work towards healing future generations.


For this to happen, apologies need to be backed by authentic actions of love and acceptance by the church, the government, and the public at large towards FNMI People. We each need to see the other as human, as having a valid contribution to society, as having been created in the image of God with purpose and intention.

Twelve step programs are often used to treat addictive behaviour, but peer reviewed studies reveal the success rate of these programs that call for total abstinence is estimated at just five to ten percent.[2] Talking about alcohol abuse can bring back memories of drinking when dealing with the pain that stems from intergenerational trauma. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostle Paul continuously warns us about drunkenness, but consider even Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34), so we need to be careful about assigning labels. Perhaps, putting reconciliation before addressing addictions is a better place to start.


Reconciliation starts with education, which brings most Christians to the authoritative text of the Bible. The Apostle Paul declares that “we have been given the ministry of reconciliation and should “not [count] people’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:18—19). Ninety-four Calls to Action came out of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Essentially, Christians are called to apologize, to understand why an apology is needed, and to continue to educate clergy on these issues so they can be taught about in the church. These recommended Calls to Action are to help mitigate the possibility of history repeating itself.


God meets people where they are at, and so should we. Christians need to meet people where they are at spiritually; however, until 2008, basic rights of freedom of religion, thought, belief and expression were extended to all Canadians, but denied to the First Peoples of this land. The right to freedom to practice traditional customs is highly valued by FNMI People and must now be recognized and extended by creating places of culturally appropriate worship.


This concept has proven to be be problematic, as both Christians and Indigenous People are suspicious of the other’s spirituality. Christians often believe FNMI People worship fallen spirits, and as author, Richard Twiss reflects, Natives are suspicious of European belief systems that have been associated with “conquest, racism, hatred, prejudice, exclusion, forced assimilation and ongoing institutional injustices.”[3] So how do we work through these suspicions and still extend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to FNMI People?


The Apostle Paul states that to win as many souls as possible we should become all things to all people. To the Jew we become Jew, to the gentile we become gentile (1 Cor 9:19-23), …and so we should become Indigenous to the Indigenous. This does not mean we have to attend powwows, eat dried meat, or find a drum to beat. No, we can do this by contextualizing FNMI traditional customs and spiritual beliefs into Bible-based Christian action. In his book, Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson speaks about using the ‘sacred four’ that Creator ordained when he created the world.


This concept is most often depicted in the traditional Medicine Wheel. The wheel depicts the “four sacred principals that prevent everything from collapsing into chaos.” Most often, the Medicine Wheel is used to depict the four directions; the four stages of life; the four aspects of humanity; the four seasons; the four elements; the four medicines, and so on.


We can additionally apply the Circle of Courage[4] teachings that highlight the values that have evolved over thousands of years in cultures that deeply revere children. Because many Indigenous People are damaged during their childhood, a good place to start is providing them with the tools to reclaim what was either lost, or never learned in their formative years. The circle asserts the need for four essential life components of generosity, belonging, mastery and independence as helpful in reclaiming lives. By implementing these components into the life of those who have been broken down by colonialism, we are demonstrating authentic culturally intelligent love, which can help the Other to move forward from wounds inflicted upon them by racist and colonialist practices.


The need to give is Biblically based. If we are generous then God is generous with us (Mal 3: 6—12). Generosity need not be tangible; it can also be intangible…as in sharing time or showing love or sharing knowledge. Everyone has something to offer…something to bring to the table. We should view the smallest gesture as huge just as Jesus revered the poor woman that dropped two copper pieces into the offering plate (Mark 12:41—43).


The concept of belonging is also Biblical. Consider that God created us to live in relationship with him (Psalm 100:3); however, because of intergenerational trauma, many FNMI People are broken and therefore have broken relationships. Furthermore, because we were removed from our homes and placed in environments in which love simply did not exist, we lost any sense of belonging. The desire to belong is part of being human because we were built to live in relationship. Reaching out to FNMI people with authentic love helps to instill a sense of belonging.


Mastery can also be conceived Biblically, as God gave all of us gifts that we could use to make a living. We were created with purpose and intention, created to be good at something. If life denies us this ability then we acquire a feeling of uselessness. We need to be able to work hard at whatever we do, to work at it with all our heart, as if working for God, and not for human masters (Col 3:17). Doing this provides a sense of contribution and worth.


Independence has to do with freedom, autonomy, self-determination, and self-reliance. It is being free from outside control and not being dependent on another for livelihood or subsistence. We have freedom in Christ (2 Cor 3:17), but the Indian Act did its best to take this away from the FNMI People of this land, so this factor largely needs to be relearned. We can reinforce this by promoting the acquisition of new skills in our Indigenous friends.


By giving First Peoples a chance to show their generosity, by giving them a sense of belonging and independence, and providing them a chance to master a new skill, then perhaps, we can begin to move away from intergenerational related trauma that often leads to other adverse effects in life. We can be a part of healing from the brokenness.


Photo: William Faden - Library and Archives Canada


[1] Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1965), 10. [2] Ibid. [3] Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2015), 20. [4] Larry K. Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth at Risk, 3rd Ed. (Bloomington: Solution Tree Press), Kindle Edition. Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2015), 20.

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