The Untold Story of Indigenous Child Neglect and Alcohol Abuse – The Firewater Complex
Retired Manitoba Judge Brian Giesbrecht discusses what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission neglected in their final report: The tragedy of alcohol abuse on Canadian reserves
By Brian Giesbrecht
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report purports to tell a comprehensive story of the experience of Indigenous people and residential schools. But when doing so it virtually omits one of the tragic, but essential parts of that story – the tragic toll that alcohol has taken on the Indigenous community. Understanding the devastating role alcohol played on reserve life is key to grasping the scope of the parental neglect issue that resulted in so many of the residential school placements. Then, as now, the Indigenous child welfare problem – parental neglect stemming from alcohol abuse – is a problem of massive proportions.
But there exists a major stumbling block that prevents a candid discussion of this most important subject. It is the stereotype of “the drunken Indian”. This stereotype has been a part of our history since at least the 17th Century. I will refer to some of that history below. The stereotype has caused great damage to both Indigenous people – most of whom are not accurately depicted by the stereotype- and to the country’s relationship with Indigenous people, generally.
However, knowledge that the infamous stereotype is lurking in the bushes has also prevented candid discussions of a very real issue: problem drinking by a minority – but a significant minority – of the Indigenous population. Discussion of the full extent of the problem is necessary in order to move forward. No such discussion came from the TRC, despite the fact that many children were placed in residential schools as a direct result of problem drinking. The fact is that a full discussion of the devastating effects of alcohol on the Indigenous population – and specifically drinking as a way of life in many Indigenous communities – is necessary if the residential school story is to be understood. The relationship between alcohol, parental neglect and residential schools is the subject of this essay.
The TRC’s main message is that the trauma of forced attendance at residential schools was the cause of the inter-generational problems, such as alcohol abuse and its close relative – parental neglect. If the TRC is correct, then its main prescription for change – namely, a solution through reconciliation – in the form of various efforts from the rest of the country to make up for the suffering caused – makes perfect sense. If the TRC has it wrong – and I am arguing that it does – no amount of “reconciliation” will solve this very big problem.
I argue that problems within the Indigenous community go much deeper than the trauma that a minority experienced from residential school attendance. Certainly, the lives of many individuals were ruined by their terrible experience at residential school. There is no doubt that their children and grandchildren suffered as a result. But the fact that only a small percentage of Indigenous children attended residential schools, and only a small fraction of that number were abused, shows clearly how exaggerated the TRC’s central finding – namely that residential schools caused the problems in Indigenous communities- really is. And just as there are many troubled Indigenous people and communities with a residential school history, there are even more such people and communities with no residential school history at all. By the same token, there are just as many successful Indigenous people and communities with a residential school history as there are those with no residential school history at all. I will argue that the problems came about long before before residential schools came into the picture. In reality, residential schools were established partly to address the problem of dysfunction within the Indigenous community. And I will argue finally that no amount of “reconciliation” in the form of money and government programs can solve the problems. Only individual Indigenous people and communities can do that.
It should go without saying that most Indigenous parents do a fine job of raising their children. Even in a time when virtually all Indigenous people on reserves were poor, there were always strong parents and surrogate parents who raised their children successfully. The TRC Head Commissioner Murray Sinclair discussed his upbringing in a Globe and Mail interview. Senator Sinclair explained that he was raised by a strong grandmother. Even though there was not always enough food to eat in the home, his grandmother made sure that the children were brought up in a stable and loving atmosphere. Judging by the Senator’s success, his grandmother must have been a remarkable woman.
And there were many other parents and surrogate parents like the grandmother. These were all people who did not let the problem drinking that plagues so many Indigenous communities interfere with that most important duty – parenting.
Unfortunately, there were too many people who did succumb to the debilitating effects of problem drinking – the “firewater complex”, as Thatcher describes it (below)- that has plagued Indigenous communities since alcohol was first introduced to their culture by European explorers. I will briefly discuss how that happened.
I will start with a short history of alcohol use in the Indigenous community. I will refer to some authorities when doing so, but to keep this essay to a readable length I will keep references and quotes to a minimum. Readers can follow up on the references if they wish to do so.
Traditionally, the Indigenous people occupying the territory that is now Canada had no, or very little, exposure to alcohol or intoxicating substances. (Thatcher). Southern neighbours made use of peyote and other substances for ceremonial purposes, but the use of alcohol was something new to most of Canada’s Indians when the Europeans arrived, bringing alcohol with them. Simply put, although heavy drinking was certainly part of European life, the Europeans had used alcohol for thousands of years, and Indigenous people had not. The Europeans had developed customs and habits through trial and error during that long period of adjustment which had somewhat regulated its use. The Indians shared none of that long history with alcohol. As a result, alcohol arrived like a bombshell, and its negative impact on the Indian was immediately apparent. For example, The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had barely had time to set up operations, and they already had Indians at the Fort begging for alcohol. In the case of other early fur trade operations there are examples of Indian tribes who refused to trade furs for anything but alcohol.1
Here is how Hugh A. Dempsey describes the introduction of liquor to people who had not experienced it before in “Firewater – The Impact of the Whisky Trade on the Blackfoot Nation”:
“Intoxicants of any kind had been unknown to the Blackfoot Nation prior to European contact. Although rum or whisky had been around since the 1770s, the tribes had had only limited access to it when they visited the trading posts twice a year. Then, they had a big debauch, going into it wholeheartedly just as they did when celebrating a victory over an enemy, or performing a ritual or a ceremony. After, they returned to their camps and remained sober for several months, until their next trip to the fort. The pattern was well established over the years, but when the whisky traders came into their midst, they were encouraged to extend their drinking year-around.”
Richard W. Thatcher also describes this history in some detail in “Fighting Firewater Fictions”. (Thatcher develops his theory of the “firewater complex” in Indigenous communities, but discussion of that theory is beyond the scope of this essay.) Other authorities, such as Hallowell, Smart and Ogburne discuss this phenomenon at much greater length. Suffice it to say that there is a great deal of research on the problem of binge drinking in Indigenous communities, and historical accounts of it stretch back to the time of first contact with Europeans. For reasons beyond the ability of this writer to discern, the introduction of alcohol to a people who had done just fine without it for thousands of years created the perfect storm for the massive alcohol problem that persists to this day.
On a larger scale, this same process took place with all of the tribes of the prairies and the north. Confinement on reserves profoundly changed a semi-nomadic life of following the food supply to one of sedentary idleness. Drinking bouts that may have taken place a few times a year on trips to the Hudson’s Bay fort could now take place whenever liquor could be found. Thus, the combination of a new sedentary lifestyle and the introduction of liquor was a deadly combination for the tribes of the west and north.
This is how Diamond Jennes, probably our country’s first and best authority on the subject describes it in his seminal work, “The Indians of Canada”:
“Whiskey and brandy destroyed the self respect of the Indians, weakened every family and tribal tie, and made them, willing or unwilling, the slaves of the trading post where whiskey was dispensed by the keg. Even the fur traders recognized its evils and gladly supported the government when it finally prohibited all sale to the Indians under payment of a heavy fine. Disease and alcohol demoralized and destroyed the Indians just when they needed all their energy and courage to cope with the new conditions that suddenly came into existence around them.”
But profoundly more significant was the fact that a people whose lives once had a clear meaning and purpose now had none. The transition to reserve life not only altered a way of life that had worked well for thousands of years, it robbed the tribes of a reason to exist. This cultural loss, combined with the deadly toll taken by diseases, such as tuberculosis, made Canada’s small and scattered Indigenous population uniquely susceptible to the most harmful effects that beverage alcohol is capable of inflicting on a downtrodden people.
In The Circle Fellowship by Richard W. Thatcher and Fred E. Knowles, Jr. the authors describe the binge drinking – what they refer to as the special problem aboriginal peoples have with alcohol – that has been part of reserve life for generations. They trace it back to explorer days, when unattached male European explorers, and later native born traders, miners and others introduced binge drinking to an Indigenous population that previously had either no experience, or very little experience, with alcohol. Thus, the drinking model Indigenous people saw for the first time was not the wine sipping culture of the civilized classes of Europe, but rather the hard-drinking style of unattached young men, not restrained by any of the cultural refinements that might have held them in check back home. That is the drinking style Indigenous tribes adopted way back then, and it is the drinking style that has become entrenched as a way of life on too many of today’s reserves.
It is clear that tribal life was seriously disrupted by the sudden introduction of alcohol into Indigenous communities. Early descriptions of the drunkenness and violence are not hard to find. After Confederation the new government realized early on that the plains Indians must be protected from American whiskey traders. The Blackfoot, for instance, had been reduced almost overnight from a proud and independent people to a pitiful shadow of itself because of drink. In “Firewater – The Impact of the Whiskey Trade on the Blackfoot Nation” by Hugh A. Dempsey, a man who personally witnessed the ravages of alcohol on the Blackfoot, Lorenzo Lyman, is quoted at page 1 of the Introduction:
“I upon the 24th ins. visited the Piegan Camp and soon learned that three kegs of whiskey amounting to 15 or more gallons had just been brought upon pack horses by two white men (one of whom is known by the Indians as Curly Head) and was then being traded to the Indians. I found I was powerless to move in preventing the fearful and disgusting spectacle of the drunken orgie(sic) which soon followed. Practise too vile and disgusting to describe, I witnessed through the night in the Piegan Camp, the sole result of drunkenness. The chiefs have no power to prevent the Indians from drinking this worst and most vilely adulterated whiskey, and many of them squaws too indulge to excess, when followed scenes of madness and frenzy, accompanied with the lowest, most brutal and disgusting practices imaginable, and seldom ends without serious loss of life.”
The chiefs, as Lyman noted, had no control over this unquenchable thirst. The great Chief Crowfoot said (at page 2):
“The whiskey brought among us by the traders is fast killing us off and we are powerless before the evil. We are totally unable to resist the temptation to drink when brought in contact with the white man’s water.”
It is not suggested that exactly this uncontrollable frenzy of drinking takes place now, but it is that same binge style drinking that remains the norm even today on reserves. Although actual liquor consumption by volume may be no higher than in a mainstream town or city – or may even be lower in some cases – it is the binge nature of the drinking that makes that drinking so destructive. A party will start, and will not stop, until all the liquor is gone. This might take days. During that time, violence, indiscriminate or violent sex, and appalling parental neglect inevitably takes place. It is high risk drinking. The results can be catastrophic, and frequently include the commission of serious crimes.
The effects on the children caught up in that atmosphere of chaotic drunkenness and violence cannot properly be measured, so destructive are they. Tragically, it is the binge nature of the drinking that also accounts for so many of the pregnancies of often very young Indigenous females. Then, as now, chance pregnancies after a night of partying result in the birth of children to a girl who is simply not ready to be a parent. The father is too often simply a sperm donor, and plays no further part in the parenting of the child. Then, as now, this coincidence of factors contributes greatly to the problem of child neglect in the Indigenous community.
The additional destructive pattern emerging from the chance pregnancies of young girls in this alcoholic atmosphere is the fact that so many children are brought up in homes that include a stepfather. By far the greatest predictor that a child will be abused in any given home is the presence of a stepfather. (Sad, Gaad). A child is at least one hundred times as likely to be sexually or physically abused by a stepfather than a biological father. This unfortunate fact explains in part the large number of abused Indigenous children, and the fact that many of these children acted out their experience in various ways when they were placed in residential schools.
The reasons why alcohol posed such a problem for Indigenous people is a subject far beyond the scope of this book, or the expertise of this writer. There are many theories advanced, and no doubt some truth in each. Suffice it to say that the devastating effects of alcohol on Indigenous people was recognized very early on.
Other remedial measures were taken by the young federal government to try to help Indigenous people by keeping alcohol away from them. It was readily apparent early on that if alcohol was made available on a reserve the results would be violence and gross dysfunction. Accordingly, The Indian Act originally prohibited drinking by reserve residents either on the reserve or away from the reserve. It is noteworthy that other countries with Indigenous populations employed similar alcohol restrictions with respect to their Indigenous populations.
Once Indian Act prohibition was enforced and the whiskey traders brought under control, alcohol use on reserves in the first half of the 20th century was not as severe as the major problem it would become in the second half.
But even during the Indian Act prohibition period binge drinking continued on most reserves. However, the drinking that took place was done clandestinely, and as cash was very scarce on reserves, most reserve residents simply lacked the means to purchase alcohol on a regular basis. Those were the days before welfare checks and ready cash robbed reserve residents of the need to see to their own survival. Alcohol use was hidden, but more or less under control.
The Indian Act absolute prohibition on the use or possession of liquor by Indians, on or off the reserve, was eventually deemed to be contrary to The Bill of Rights. The Drybones case (1970) effectively put an end to it. However, before prohibition ended completely, there was an intermediate stage where alcohol consumption or possession remained illegal on the reserve, but reserve residents could legally consume liquor away from the reserve. Alan Fry (discussed below) talks about the special problems this intermediate stage introduced. Reserve residents would come to town to drink at the local hotel bar. Knowing that they could not take any liquor back home with them, many chose to circumvent this rule by taking the alcohol back with them in their stomachs – gross intoxication was the result. Fry discussed the “intoxicated people stacked like cordwood” outside of the hotels. The writer has personally experienced this phenomenon in northern towns in the 1960s and 1970s – that is, reserve residents falling down drunk in the streets after the hotel bar closed for the night. The police would haul intoxicated people to the holding centre for the night. Drunken fights, brutal treatment of women, and general mayhem were the order of the day. (As noted previously, this behaviour also frequently resulted in unexpected pregnancies by very young females who were not properly equipped to parent – exacerbating the problem of child neglect.)
When prohibition came to an end, many wise Indigenous leaders tried to bring it back through the use of voluntarily designating their reserves as “dry reserves” – (with mixed results).
The end of this prohibition and the introduction of more cash on the reserves – first with the new Old Age check, but more devastatingly still, with the introduction of the modern welfare check in the 1960s – saw drinking get completely out of control on many reserves. That modern welfare check also virtually ended the gainful employment that most reserve residents previously sought in order to get by. The check meant that they no longer had to do that. And there would be money for the alcohol too many craved. As a consequence, by the middle of the 1960s drinking had become virtually a way of life on many reserves, particularly those in the west and the north. On some reserves, drinking was simply out of control. It is important to note that some reserves were effected more negatively by alcohol use than others, just as some individuals were effected more than others. However, the general problem on all reserves was the same – alcohol was a deeply destructive force.
Alan Fry describes this process in his important book, “How A People Die”. Mr. Fry was an Indian Agent, and saw first hand the devastation that alcohol caused on the reserves that he administered. Although the book is a fictional account of life on an Indian reserve, Mr. Fry writes a thoughtful introduction based on his experience: both as an Indian agent – and as an alcoholic. He describes what he saw on the reserve in his day job as an Indian agent at page 9:
“widespread heavy drinking, brutal violence against women and children by husbands, fathers and other men, sexual abuse including considerable incest, dreadful neglect of children.”
And it is this neglect of children, resulting directly from alcohol abuse that was responsible for so many Indigenous children being placed in residential schools by Indian agents. There was no other place else for them. Until well into the 1960s, the federal government did not have access to any child apprehension machinery. The only way that a child could be removed from an alcoholic home was by placement at a residential school, where at least for the duration of the school year, the child could have a better chance than if left with his or her drinking parents. The Caldwell Report documents the fact that in eight of the nine Saskatchewan residential schools studied in the Report, the majority of the children were enrolled for child welfare reasons. In plain terms, this means that those children were placed in the schools because their parents’ drinking made it unsafe for the children to remain in their biological homes. It is safe to assume that binge drinking was at least partly responsible for the fact that these neglected children had been brought into this world in the first place. It is also safe to assume that in many cases the mothers would have been young when they had the children, and the fathers had little involvement in their parenting.
In “Fighting Firewater Fictions” Richard W. Thatcher details how alcohol abuse has been disproportionately implicated in child abuse and neglect in the aboriginal population (page 19). Thatcher explains that what he is talking about is not mainly classic alcoholism- it is binge drinking. Here is how one Indigenous community member from Peepeeksis First Nation in Southern Saskatchewan explained the problem to Thatcher: (page 20)
“You’ve got to understand something. When we drink we drink until we drop”.
When child apprehension became available as a result of a federal provincial agreement, whereby provincial child care workers could enter reserves and apprehend neglected children, the workers going on to some of the reserves for the first time were horrified by what they saw – out of control drinking and appalling child neglect. The apprehensions that took place then led to what is now called The 60s’ Scoop. It was drinking that was at the root of the terrible child neglect these workers witnessed.
Fry describes some of these situations of shocking neglect in his How A People Die. In one case, a neglected baby dies while the parents drink. His book is fiction, but is based on his decades of experience working in Indigenous communities in British Columbia. Many of the situations he describes are very familiar to me. In my thirty years as a judge hearing child welfare cases I encountered exactly such situations. I remember one case where the parents were so intent with drinking at their neighbour’s house, that they forgot to go home to feed their wood fire stove. Their child froze to death.
Mr. Fry offers his opinion about the children of those heavy drinking 1960s parents, as well as the false argument that residential schools caused that drinking at page 20:
“Born to drinking parents they now drink. The argument is widely advanced that this generation of parents, the last to attend residential schools, do not know how to parent because they spent so much time in the schools. I won’t defend the residential schools because too much went wrong there, but I do argue that the heavy drinking in their parents’ generation which continues in their own is far more responsible than the residential schools for the dreadful neglect of today’s children.”
So alcohol abuse on reserves was always a very serious problem. But exactly how bad is the problem of alcohol abuse on reserves (and now their urban offshoots) today?
According to Cree lawyer, Harold Johnson, the author of “Firewater” (not to be confused with Dempsey’s ”Firewater” cited above) alcohol is such a serious problem on reserves that the death of half of all Treaty Six residents is related to drinking (Mr. Johnson is himself a Treaty Six Cree man). Johnson’s “Firewater” is not an academic treatise, but Mr. Johnson’s observations are actually backed up by studies. Health and Welfare Canada’s report entitled “Health Status of Canadian Indians and Inuit” (1990) reports that the elevated death rate for Indians in ages fifteen through forty-five was due in 75% of cases to injury and poisoning (read alcohol for poisoning). A Solicitor General of Canada’s Report (1991) found that in most Indigenous communities at least 80% of the inhabitants had alcohol problems.
So the problem is serious. Extremely serious. It is not made less so by the fact that other harmful drugs are now endemic on many reserves. The Opioid crisis has hit particularly hard on reserves, to say nothing of the prescription drug problem (assisted greatly by “free prescriptions”.)
Here is how Thatcher describes the First Nations drinking problem at page 23:
“In short, excessive drinking, by which I mean drinking to the point of intoxication, and drunken, reckless, and often hostile drinking compartment, continues to be a dominant drinking style,among First Nations people who classify themselves as current drinkers.”
But if the problem of drinking and drug use on reserves is so massive a problem, why does the TRC Report say practically nothing about it? For that matter, why did the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) devote only two of its 56,000 pages to the subject – and then conclude that it wasn’t a problem?
Harold Johnson hints at the reason in “Firewater” where he says that it is a subject that just can’t be openly and honestly discussed. For an Indigenous person to do so will bring accusations that he is selling out his own people. For anyone else to candidly discuss the glaringly obvious problem will bring accusations of racism. Mr. Johnson says “A white man who uses the words ‘alcohol’ and ‘Indian’ in the same sentence will be labelled a ‘racist’.” Alcohol abuse in the Indigenous community is truly the subject “that dares not speak its name.”
As a result, the TRC leaves out a part of the residential school story that is crucial to its understanding. Why were so many children from inadequate homes in residential schools? Why was there so much evidence of community dysfunction in the schools – such as student on student sexual abuse? Why did so many of the children who attended the schools (as well as so many Indigenous children who did not attend) do so poorly in life? Why were the schools considered necessary in the first place? These are but a few of the questions that must be asked. It is suggested that drinking as a way of life on so many reserves is a very big part of the answer to those questions.
Fry concludes his Introduction to “How A People Die” with this brilliant observation: (at page 26):
“the root cause of the grief and mystery (in Aboriginal communities) is a devastating vulnerability to alcoholism which has resulted in heavy alcoholic drinking of the worst sort, with all its brutal consequences….including gross parental neglect”.
The TRC Report simply leaves out of the discussion what the Circle of Fellowship authors euphemistically call the “special problem” of alcohol on reserves and their urban offshoots. The fact that the Commissioners fail to address this difficult topic in a meaningful way renders the report both deficient and misleading. This is a huge failing of the TRC Report, and this failing renders it other findings highly suspect.
One man who tried to discuss the importance of the child welfare aspect of residential schools was John Siebert. He was the lead researcher for The United Church, and had spent years examining documents pertaining to the residential issue. His conclusion, as reported in The National Post, was that for many of the years when enrolment at residential schools was at its highest, many of the residential schools were being used primarily as repositories for child welfare cases. That is, where the parents’ drinking made it unsafe, or unwise for the children to be left with their parents, the children would be placed in a residential school. Siebert is quoted as saying that the claims that residential schools devastated Indigenous communities were greatly exaggerated. He is also quoted as saying that his research showed that the numbers who attended was also greatly exaggerated.
What brought the greatest amount of criticism from Indigenous critics was Siebert’s opinion – based on years of research- that residential schools were established to help Indigenous children, and not to rob them of their culture as claimed. Siebert also talked about the use of residential schools to deal with the chronic problem of Indigenous child welfare.
One very important document that discusses in detail the use of residential schools to house neglected Indigenous children is The Caldwell Report (1967). This Report studied nine residential schools in Saskatchewan. Eight of the schools studied were primarily rural schools, while one was an urban school (Prince Albert). In all of the rural schools studied upwards of 80% of the students were there primarily for child welfare reasons – that is, because of the drinking that was taking place in the home of the biological parents. It must be noted that the percentage of child welfare cases varied from school to school. In some schools the numbers were small, while in others the numbers were large. The TRC practically ignored the Caldwell Report and its highly significant findings.
It is this child welfare aspect – directly related to drinking – that is so important to a proper understanding of the myriad problems experienced by so many ex residential school students. It is notorious these days how poorly child welfare wards do in comparison with children in the general population.
Clearly, the harm that has come to these children in their formative years in an inadequate home leaves many lasting scars. Children from those homes tend to do poorly in all aspects of their life whether they are apprehended by a child welfare agency or left in their inadequate homes. They are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to get into trouble with the law, and generally more likely to live very troubled lives. A recent startling finding was that at least half of the homeless people living on the streets of Winnipeg, Manitoba are Indigenous, and are practically all former wards of child care agencies. (Many of these unfortunate people suffer from Fetal Alcohol disorders- FASD).
The TRC Report says nothing about this massive problem of Indigenous child neglect. Instead, it pins all of the blame for the troubled lives of these ex-students on the residential schools themselves. This is highly simplistic, and very misleading. Children from inadequate homes did not do any better in the past than they do now. The reason is primarily poor parenting and not poor schooling. Put bluntly – by the time the children get to school, the damage has been done. In the vast majority of cases of neglected Indigenous children, alcohol abuse is at the root of the problem.
So, the TRC has it backwards. Yes, many Indigenous people suffered terribly at residential school, and were scarred for life. Yes, they passed much of their suffering on to their descendants. But by the same token, many people who attended residential schools managed to overcome any trauma that was caused by their attendance. In fact, some reported experiencing no ill effects at all, and attributed some of their success in life to their experience at residential school. Most Indigenous people did not attend – too many of those lived very troubled lives, and their troubles had nothing to do with residential schools. Therefore, it is simply not accurate – and indeed it is simplistic in the extreme -to conclude that because of the experience of a small minority of attendees, the social problems within Indigenous communities can be laid at the doorstep of the residential school. The problems go much deeper than that. The root of those problems was there before residential schools came along. The TRC very deliberately got it wrong. The Commissioners wanted to find something, and they found it by ignoring an extremely important piece of the evidence. That piece was the alcohol/child neglect phenomenon.
And the TRC simply carries on a tradition within First Nations communities of blaming others for all of the problems Indigenous people are experiencing. Here is how Thatcher describes this phenomenon in Fighting Firewater Fictions:
“There is a tendency to almost automatically attribute the causes of all social problems in First Nations communities to external forces, typically with reference to historic events situated in interactions with white settler society, or to current legislation, program or cultural trends”.
With its emphasis on “reconciliation” – which clearly means that the federal government, and the rest of mainstream society must remedy the situation, the TRC also carries on a longstanding First Nation tradition of looking to outside sources for solutions to its internal problems. And this illustrates the central hopelessness of “reconciliation” as a fix. Again, here is Thatcher (at page 135):
“Typically, it is assumed in First Nations reserve communities that the primary responsibility for the provision of resources to solve basic community problems lies wholly with the federal government or non-aboriginal society generally”
The result is a report that is both heavily biased, and simplistic in the extreme. It is not a balanced document. But if the TRC got it wrong, so what? What difference does it make?
In fact it makes a huge difference. The TRC’s main recommendation – namely that to remedy the harm caused by the schools, the system should be left as it is, but “reconciliation” projects should be be undertaken by the country as a solution – is based on its finding that residential schools caused the intergenerational problems like alcohol abuse/child neglect. If their main finding is wrong, the solution proposed is also suspect. If – as is argued here – the intergenerational problems do not stem mainly from residential schools, but have more to do with the dysfunction caused by the isolation and dependence of reserve life – the solution is something entirely different. That solution involves dismantling the entire reserve structure.
The TRC Report virtually ignored the tremendously important subject of alcohol abuse in the Indigenous community, and hence is a faulty document. The story it tells is incomplete.
I suggest that what Thatcher calls the “firewater complex” is in fact at the root of the issues examined by all of the Indigenous Inquiries that have taken place since 1996, when The Royal Commission On Aboriginal People’s (RCAP) was held. The Manitoba Justice Inquiry (MJI), The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), currently The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Commission (MMIW), and probably a “60s Scoop Commission” have all spent a huge amount of time, money and energy examining in incredible detail a multitude of issues pertaining to the experience of Indigenous people in Canada. However, none of these sophisticated and very expensive commissions have done anything more than pay lip service to the hugely important “firewater complex” issue. So anxious have the commissioners on these inquiries been to avoid perpetuating the “drunken Indian” stereotype that they have ignored the single most serious impediment to Indigenous advancement. The residential school story cannot be properly told without a thorough discussion of the firewater complex.
Proof that the current federal government is determined to perpetuate the misleading story told by the TRC – a story that virtually ignores the vitally important alcohol/child neglect component – is found in the announcement by Minister Janice Philpott on November 30, 2018. The Minister set out plans of the federal government to once again reorganize the Indigenous child welfare system by mandating standards provincial governments must follow in relation to child apprehensions. In essence, the plan is to completely Indigenize child welfare systems across, the country when Indigenous children are involved. Minister Philpott attributed the incredibly complicated problem of Indigenous child neglect to “the legacy of residential schools”. This astoundingly simplistic reasoning is a clear demonstration that the federal government does not understand the complicated and chronic problem.
The obvious problem with this “new” plan is that it has been done before – many times before. In the case of the prairie provinces, child welfare services were Indigenized years ago. As noted above, the Indigenization did not solve the problem of too many Indigenous children in care – in many ways it made the problem worse. Now, the process is to begin all over again, but with more “help” from Ottawa. This is not a good sign.
The truth is that it is simply impossible to solve a problem if it cannot be discussed.
Thanks For reading. For more on indigenous issues from this author, read Common Misconceptions of the Indian Residential School System
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Agents of Their Own Desires: Indian Consumers and the Hudson’s Bay Company 1700-1770, Carlos and Lewis