Originally published in the Prince Albert Daily Herald on November 7, 2017
NOTE: The term “Indian” is used in this article, as that was the word most commonly used to refer to Indigenous peoples during the period under discussion.
Indigenous people were not allowed to drink in Saskatchewan bars until 1960 – the same year they were granted the right to vote. The push for Indians’ right to purchase and consume alcohol began right after the Second World War.
They fought for our country
Several thousand Indigenous men and women fought in the Canadian armed services during both world wars. When they returned from overseas, however, provisions from the out-dated Indian Act prohibited them from voting, holding pow-wows, and drinking alcoholic beverages. They were not even allowed to drink with their former comrades-in-arms at the Legion halls across Canada. In the words of historian James H. Gray, “there was something patently ridiculous in a system which permitted an Indian to risk his life for his country but denied him access to a bottle of beer.”
From 1946 to 1948, a Special Committee of the Senate and House of Commons studied the
Indian Act and heard many opinions on the issue of Indian alcohol restrictions in Canada. In May 1947 John B. Tootoosis, president of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians, told the hearings that there might be some problems, but, he maintained, “the Indian would learn to handle whiskey.” Joseph Dreaver, president of the Saskatchewan Indian Association and a veteran of both world wars, told the committee that Aboriginal soldiers drank overseas at in military canteens along with their non-Aboriginal comrades, and he “found no difference between the Indian and the white man.”
In 1951, on the recommendations of the Special Committee, the federal government made a number of changes to the Indian Act, including an amendment which permitted Indians to consume intoxicating beverages in licensed premises, providing that their provincial government allowed it. The Saskatchewan government, however, was not prepared to act. Premier Tommy Douglas, a non-drinker himself, was not in favour of drinking whether by whites or Indians. He knew there was a great deal of opposition throughout the province. There was even a divergence of opinion about drinking among Saskatchewan’s Indian leaders. “Local chiefs knew only too well the disastrous effects alcohol had had in the past,” author F. Laurie Barron explains, “and understandably they were not anxious to legitimize or broaden its use.” (Walking in Indian Moccasins: The Native Policies of Tommy Douglas and the CCF, 1997.)
Nothing was done until 1960 when Douglas set aside his own reservations on the matter. On July 27, 1960, with the issue of a federal proclamation, Saskatchewan Indians were given the right to purchase and consume alcohol. In the latter instance, they were not allowed to drink liquor on a reserve unless that reserve had been declared “wet” as the result of a referendum.
Hotels not happy
The following year, the Hotel Association of Saskatchewan proposed that Indian drinking continue to be restricted until an education program could be implemented to teach Indians about their rights and responsibilities involved in alcohol consumption. John Tootoosis, president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, informed the hotelmen that many educational meetings had been held on reserves throughout the province during 1960 that were designed to help Indians understand the complexities of the new regulations. Bill Wuttunee, a Regina lawyer and member of the provincial committee on minority groups, stated that while most Saskatchewan hotelmen were co-operating well, a few had “completely disregarded the civil liberties of Indians.” Wuttunee believed that Indians, given time, would be able to handle liquor as well as anyone else. (Regina Leader-Post, May 17, 1961, p. 3.)
In May of 1961, Premier Douglas addressed the 30th annual convention of the provincial hotels association. He urged hotelmen to be patient in dealing with problems created by allowing Indians into licensed beverage rooms. “We are having this trouble,’ Douglas said, “because we are reaping the harvest of 50 years or more of making the Indian a second-class citizen. We are going to have to make up our minds whether we are going to keep the Indian bottled up in a sort of Canadian apartheid or whether we are going to let him become a good citizen.” He cautioned, however, that while the Indian had been given equal rights, he had no more right to break the law than the white man. “If he is drunk or causing a disturbance then he should be put out of the premises the same as a white man should. But he should not be put out just because he is an Indian.” (Regina Leader-Post, May 18, 1961, p. 42.)
Despite Douglas’ cautionary words, however, incidents of discrimination against Indians in Saskatchewan hotels began to occur. In March of 1963, a member of the Prince Albert Indian and Metis Service Council charged that a group seven had been refused service in the beverage room of the Broadway Hotel on 15th Street East. When they protested to the hotel management, they were told they were sitting in the wrong place and were asked to move. The hotel manager told the Prince Albert Daily Herald that his hotel did not discriminate, pointing out that two of his employees were of native ancestry. Nevertheless, his staff were instructed to ask “untidy” people, whether Indian or white, to sit in one section of the beverage room. In other words, they were segregated.
In January of 1971, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians accused four Saskatchewan hotels of discrimination under the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. The pub in the Broadway Hotel in Prince Albert was again alleged to have refused service to Indians. The hotel manager told the Herald that “the hotel does not have a policy of requiring people to sit in one or the other areas of the beverage room premises because they are Indian or Negro or any other nationality or race.” Nevertheless, the hotel still had an established policy of “separating clean and unclean persons.” In his letter demanding an investigation, FSI Chief David Ahenakew stated that while drinking might not be the most enlightened social endeavor, it was absolutely essential, “especially in such a milieu where defences are often lower and the cutting edge of racial tension more keenly felt,” that scrupulous attention should be paid to the basic civil rights of all Canadian citizens. (Regina Leader-Post, Jan. 6, 1971, p. 2.)
By the end of the 1970s, alcohol abuse was one of the biggest problems facing the Indigenous peoples of Saskatchewan. (CLICK HERE to read more.) In 1978, Jim Sinclair, president of the Association of Metis and non-status Indians of Saskatchewan, stated that almost half of the natives in the province were “sick with booze,” and had severe alcohol problems. (CLICK HERE to read “Alcohol Treatment Urged for Natives,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, July 20, 1978, p. 28.) Things were so bad that Senator John Tootoosis, chairman of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians’ senate, stated in 1981 that he felt the reason the Canadian government had permitted Indigenous peoples to drink in bars and buy alcohol was to allow them to kill themselves off. (CLICK HERE to read “Fight for Rights, Indians Told,” Regina Leader-Post, November 24, 1981, p. 4.)
NOTE: After this article was posted on the PA Daily Herald‘s Facebook page, one reader commented: “On Treaty 6 Territory the Indigenous people asked for protection from alcohol. Alcohol was brought by the Non-Indigenous people and it was their responsibility to stop it. The Indigenous peoples knew the damaging effects of alcohol and asked the Treaty Commissioner to not allow alcohol in the Treaty 6 lands and this was written in the Treaty agreement. However, with the creation of the Indian Act, instead of honoring the Treaty agreement it became a Federal policy from the Indian Act to punish Indigenous people with fines or jail for alcohol use or banning from bars. With the Canadian Bill of Rights, which states that everyone is equal, the law and the Indian Act was changed to allow Indigenous people into bars and to allow reserves to decide if they are dry reserves or not. The Treaty agreements again were ignored. What appears as a lifting of discrimination is really a violation of the Treaty 6 agreements. [Information taken from Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours) by Harold R. Johnson.]”