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Tracing the geography of Canada’s racist liquor control policies

Alcohol control measures have evolved over time to maintain the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous people

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Toronto Police arresting a man for illegal possession of alcohol, September 16, 1916. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-January, Winnipeg musician John K. Samson witnessed several plainclothes “loss prevention officers” violently handcuffing three Indigenous girls for alleged theft from a liquor store.

“As I arrived at the scene, I saw one officer lean on a prone girl’s back to apply handcuffs, and another push one of the children face-first into the window of the store,” wrote Samson in a letter to Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corporation a few days later. “The officers then forced the girls to sit in an uncomfortable and humiliating position on a hard floor, handcuffed and visible to the public, and spoke to the girls in a demeaning manner while waiting for police to arrive.”

Samson’s complaints about the handling of the situation were ridiculed by officers at the scene. As he sat with the girls, passerbys insulted the youth as “low-lifes” and “criminals.” Once police arrived, Samson asked to accompany the girls to the car to ensure they weren’t further harmed—and was threatened with arrest by one of the cops.

“The fact that these three young Indigenous women were assaulted by officers and jeered at by members of the public at the historical site of a displaced Métis community should make us all doubly and deeply ashamed,” Samson wrote in his complaint, referencing the Rooster Town settlement that was bulldozed in the 1950s to build the mall where the liquor store is.

“The recent heightened security protocols MLLC has introduced are directly to blame and should be suspended immediately.”

Samson never received a response from the provincial Crown corporation to his complaint.

Less than three months after the incident Samson witnessed, 16-year-old Eishia Hudson was shot to death by Winnipeg Police officers. Hudson, who was Indigenous, had allegedly participated in the theft of alcohol from a liquor store. Cops were called and engaged in a pursuit of the allegedly stolen vehicle she was driving. If the store had not summoned police to defend its property via a high-speed chase that greatly escalated the situation, there is a very high likelihood that Hudson would still be alive today.

The arrests and humiliation of the three Indigenous girls in mid-January and the police killing of Eishia Hudson in early April are only two of the countless examples of anti-Indigenous violence triggered by the moral panic about liquor store thefts in early 2019. A severe and deadly ratcheting up in carceral infrastructure has been introduced in its wake, including the introduction of secure entrances, the hiring of police officers and “loss prevention officers,” and the assigning of a special Crown prosecutor to expedite the conviction of alleged thieves. Several of these policies have been called for and supported by the Manitoba NDP and Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU).

The Crown corporation that runs Manitoba’s liquor stores now keeps an active list of people charged—not convicted—for theft on its website. The stories that have emerged about the people caught up in this fallout are disturbing. In one instance, an Indigenous man who had survived childhood abuse and whose own child was killed by a drunk off-duty police officer was sentenced to over three months in jail for liquor theft.

Through these policies, consumption or alleged consumption of alcohol by Indigenous people is more visibly leveraged by the settler state to justify everything from police violence, to gentrification and displacement, to the trivialization of Indigenous death. The brutal consequences resulting from the organized abandonment by the state is increasingly excused by pathologizing Indigenous people for consuming alcohol. That’s despite the fact that survey data indicates that over 42 percent of First Nations adults report not having consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months, compared to 22 percent of Canada’s general population.

At the same time, excessive and often dangerous drinking by white people is encouraged and enabled by the state for the profits of major alcohol-producing corporations at downtown sporting events, craft breweries, patio culture, and in gentrifying neighbourhoods. Off-duty cops are regularly found to be drunk driving while facing no punishment, even when they hit and kill bystanders.

“Alcohol consumption is weaponized to keep Indigenous people down by shame and blame, and those who are consumers are often dismissed entirely by society and seen as disposable,” says Nickita Longman, a freelance writer, community organizer, and Saulteaux member of George Gordon First Nation in Treaty 4 Territory, in an interview with Canadian Dimension. “White folks are elevated with a vast variety of ‘classy’ options, and are invited into a lifestyle that celebrates their consumption.”

This hypocritical approach by the state to alcohol consumption is far from a new trend. The racist history of liquor control traces back to the genesis of colonial occupation of what is now known as Canada, evolving and reconstituting itself over the decades in new forms to justify the theft of land and resources, and to quash efforts towards self-determination. The policing of Indigenous alcohol usage has become much more visible recently—but it has been building for centuries.

“There’s definitely been a shift in the last year,” says Adele Perry, historian and co-author of Structures of Indifference: An Indigenous Life and Death in a Canadian City. “But it’s a shift that’s premised on long history. Which is of course why it’s been able to happen. If it was just a shift that came from nowhere it wouldn’t have flown.”

Policing the crisis

It is important to clearly position oneself in this kind of work. I came to research and write about this topic as a white cis male settler who has only lived in Winnipeg for a few years. The cultural politics of alcohol consumption is something that I’ve been interested in both personally and professionally for a long while. I have written for Vice Canada about my own struggles with drinking, and reported for the Globe and Mail about how alcohol industry lobbying resulted in the removal of health stickers from bottles during a landmark scientific study.

I had also made several somewhat serious attempts to quit drinking alcohol due to concerns about overreliance and potential health impacts (interviewing health experts about alcohol use will tend to do that, given the ever-growing body of scientific literature showing the extremely negative impacts of drinking—including cirrhosis, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, traumatic injury, violence, depression, and anxiety—and lack of political will to reduce harms). A close high school friend of mine died in a drunk driving crash, and other loved ones have been subjected to serious injuries and other very negative outcomes as a result of drinking.

My own alcohol use was not extreme, but it was regular, and I felt increasing shame and worry about it. This current effort to quit has been my most “successful” yet, with the end of July marking my one-year anniversary. I have experienced many positive outcomes from sobriety and had a desire to share these takeaways with others.

But this last year has also been an incredibly brutal one for alcohol policy in Winnipeg, with fear-mongering about a surge in alleged thefts from liquor stores and other retailers leading to exceptionally draconian policy responses. Several alleged thefts were covered by media for days after the fact, including the police killing of Eishia Hudson and a robbery and assault by a 15-year-old First Nations boy and two others that resulted in a Liquor Mart employee being knocked unconscious and suffering a concussion and repeated seizures since.

The carceral response to alleged liquor thefts—which accounted for a miniscule 0.2 percent of total sales in 2018, up from 0.13 percent the year prior, and fully factored into shrinkage calculations—predictably spilled over to other sites including supermarkets and retail stores. Anti-Indigenous racial profiling and white vigiliantism is continually on the rise, aided and abeted by state institutions.

Within this context of state crackdowns on Indigenous people for alleged theft of alcohol, it felt deeply inadequate to preach a gospel of sobriety from my position. Rather than contribute to the mountain of existing literature by white people talking about their drinking habits, I decided to collect research about how liquor control has been enforced against Indigenous people over time to undermine individual and collective self-determination. I wanted to better understand the ways that alcohol use had been weaponized by white people against Indigenous communities.

To help frame this research, I turned to the classic 1978 work Policing the Crisis by Stuart Hall and his co-authors at the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, which sought to explain why the spectre of “mugging” had received such extreme amounts of public attention from media, politicians, and the courts by using the analytical tool of a “moral panic.”

They wrote:

When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when ‘experts,’ in the form of police chiefs, the judiciary, politicians and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms, and appear to talk ‘with one voice’ of rates, diagnoses, prognoses and solutions, when the media representations universally stress ‘sudden and dramatic’ increases (in numbers involved or events) and ‘novelty,’ above and beyond that which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then we believe it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic.

Quite critically, Hall and his colleagues did not deny that mugging and street crime was not happening; they readily acknowledged that people had been robbed and assaulted, often resulting in significant physical and emotional trauma for the victims. They wanted to understand how everything from police statistics, to the social production of news, to conservative and liberal theories of “crime” had actively produced “mugging” (a description imported from the United States that combined several existing crimes) as a deviant act warranting immediate responses to manage the problem. The authors helpfully argued that institutions of social control “played an active role, not only in the control of anti-social behaviour but in how that behaviour was labelled, defined and publicly understood.”

I am not bold enough to claim that I can do the same for liquor store thefts as Hall and his co-authors did for “mugging” in Policing the Crisis. However, through a brief inquiry into the history and contemporary manifestations of racist liquor control, I hope to help expand the scope of how we think about these acts of supposed “deviance” and the ways that carceral responses from police, media, and politicians functions to in fact produce deviance, legitimize draconian measures, and entrench colonial discourses that oppress and exploit Indigenous people.

There is no use pretending that liquor thefts or harmful alcohol use is not happening at all: my argument is that history repeatedly demonstrates that liquor control measures are used in explicitly racist and damaging ways—and that to think about reducing alcohol-related harms outside that context will reproduce the same devastating legacies.

“Our communities are still in healing processes and creating communities of care and support are so crucial that our lives depend on it,” Longman says. “This discussion and growth must take place within our own communities. The settler state will not aid in this discourse because helping us would mean dismantling one of their most powerful weapons of oppression since contact.”

Alcohol and ‘civilization’

The first prohibitions against alcohol consumption by Indigenous people were introduced due to concerns about disrupted commerce. European colonizers had often used hard liquor as the “lubricant” in trade negotiations with Indigenous peoples, intentionally watering down the alcohol to increase profits. Indigenous people reportedly spat the alcohol onto fire to test its quality, which is where the racist and debunked myth about a supposed genetic disposition to alcoholism got its name.

A draft letter sent in 1893 concerning alleged liquor consumption by three Indigenous men living near Riding Mountain in southwest Manitoba. The letter describes resistance by the men to the Indian agent’s attempts to prohibit drinking, writing that they “do all they possibly can to defeat him in endeavouring to suppress the evil of intoxication among the Indians.” Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

In 1777, the British governor of Quebec introduced an ordinance that banned the selling or distribution of alcohol to Indigenous people because “many mischiefs may be occasioned by the practice of selling rum and other strong liquors to Indians.” Historian Robert Campbell, who specializes in the social history of alcohol, wrote in a 2008 journal article this ordinance may have been introduced due to concerns that liquor consumption would disrupt the fur trade, which remained foundational to the Quebec economy at the time.

Campbell explained that colonial control over Indigenous people formally transitioned from military to civilian officials in 1830. This was marked by two transformations: the adoption of a “policy of civilization” that resulted in the creation of reserves and attempts to convert people to Christianity; and the downloading of “responsibility” for Indigenous peoples from Britain to Canada, which seized the opportunity to prohibit alcohol sales to Indigenous people.

Bans on alcohol sales escalated through the mid-19th century. Unsurprisingly, these policies emerged alongside white supremacist conceptions of race and citizenship. Campbell noted in his article that the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 sought to assimilate Indigenous people into “civilization” if an Indigenous person could demonstrate “good moral character, which assumed sobriety,” alongside literacy and being debt-free. The “reward” for attaining citizenship was 50 acres of reserve land, representative of the colonial infatuation with rendering land “productive” through agriculture. Yet as historian Sarah Carter meticulously documented in her book Lost Harvests, the state systematically undermined and sabotaged efforts by Indigenous peoples to actually succeed at this, which in turn was used to justify further dispossession.

“The sense of how white people belong to this place is built on ‘we deserve this because we tilled the land and we turned it into valuable things,’” says Leslie Sabiston—who is Manitoba Métis and a PhD candidate at Columbia University researching Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in the health, criminal justice, and child welfare systems of Canada—in an interview with Canadian Dimension.

“There’s so much of that historical resonance.”

A National Policy of genocide

The racist policy of the Gradual Civilization Act tied Indigenity to blood—specifically male blood—and was further advanced with an amendment to the notorious Indian Act in 1884, which implemented a total ban on the selling of alcohol to “any Indian or non-treaty Indian, or to any person male or female who is reputed to belong to a particular band, or who follows the Indian mode of life, or any child of such person.”

Violating the prohibition would result in a punishment of between one and six months in jail. The amendment also banned Indigenous people from licensed establishments, including Indigenous veterans from legions. The only way that Indigenous people could drink legally was through enfranchisement, the assimilative process terminating Indian status that was triggered by serving in the military, acquiring a university education, or an Indigenous woman marrying a non-status man.

Interior of Molson’s Newfoundland brewery in St. John’s, 1910. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/Flickr.

At the same time, intoxicated colonizers were murdering Indigenous people. The Cypress Hills Massacre of 1873, when at least 20 Assiniboine people were killed by drunken American traders and wolfers, resulted in the deployment of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in their “March West” to supposedly protect Indigenous people from whiskey traders (it had much more to do with colonial sovereignty than any kind of humanitarian goal). The massacre was triggered by alleged theft of horses from the traders, a reality with unsettling parallels to the killing of Eishia Hudson by Winnipeg Police for alleged theft of an SUV.

A 1992 master’s thesis written by Nicholas Simons—oddly enough, now an MLA for the BC NDP—made the case that liquor control legislation emerged alongside the creation of the NWMP as tools “to establish Canadian sovereignty over the west, and to ensure that the Native population would not deter large-scale immigration to the Canadian west and thus impede the goals of the National Policy.” The National Policy was John A. Macdonald’s signature policy to build the Canadian Pacific Railway and increase immigration by white settlers in Western Canada, alongside other legislation such as the *Dominion Lands Act.

Simons argued that due to the cost and impracticality of a full-scale military occupation throughout the West, policies of social control and coercion were required to subjugate Indigenous people: “Liquor control laws contributed to this erosion of Native autonomy, it provided a justification for the establishment of a police force, which in turn facilitated westward agricultural expansion,” he wrote.

The numbered treaties also started to be signed throughout this time, and included the banning of alcohol on reserve lands. This policy was not unilaterally imposed; as Harold R. Johnson writes in his 2016 book Firewater, Cree negotiators of Treaty 6—signed in 1876 and covering much of what is now central Saskatchewan and Alberta—explicitly requested a ban on alcohol. Johnson cited the Cree Council, who said: “When we see it we want to drink it, and it destroys us; when we do not see it we do not think about it.”

Rigid racial hierarchies

While these policies were negotiated by Indigenous leaders for the betterment of their people, the colonial state approached the question in a deeply paternalistic and managerial way. Craig Heron wrote in Booze: A Distilled History that Indigenous inebriation was seen as representative of racial inferiority and through this legal process that “turned Native people into the equivalent of children under the law and closed off the indigenous peoples’ legal access to alcohol, they were constructing rigid racial hierarchies.”

Throughout the early 20th century, prohibition of alcohol in the United States was exploited by white supremacist forces to terrorize Black and immigrant communities. Historian Lisa McGirr has explained that membership in the second Ku Klux Klan skyrocketed after the implementation of the Volstead Act, which banned “intoxicating beverages,” in 1920: “This issue was used instrumentally as a mandate to target those groups they already saw as enemies of white Protestant nationalism: immigrants, Catholics, and African Americans,” McGirr said in a 2015 interview with Slate. “And Prohibition provided a means for them to justify what became in a way kind of an enforcement activity.”

This policy of racial profiling alcohol consumption didn’t eliminate drinking by Indigenous people, despite heavy sentences for offenders. Heron reported that bootleg liquor continued to make its ways onto reserves, and was sometimes produced there. Another history describes Indigenous people “purchasing liquor from black market dealers and consuming it rapidly in back alleys and bushes.” As decades of academic research has demonstrated, prohibition rarely works as its architects intend it to and can instead lead to dangerously efficient consumption to avoid getting spotted by authorities.

Bans on consumption of alcohol by Indigenous peoples in Canada was also administered in highly discretionary ways. Sociologist Renisa Mawani wrote in a 2000 article that the existence of mixed-race people—such as the children of Indigenous women and white men—in 19th century British Columbia posed a significant threat to the white supremacist doctrines being leveraged to justify theft of land, as they were seen to represent “false claims” to citizenship.

Whiteness, Mawani writes, was continually constituted in opposition to racialized others; these fluid yet rigid boundaries were challenged by mixed-race people. As a result, liquor prohibitions were “integral to maintaining racial and spatial boundaries and to keeping mixed-race people in their place, or, in other words, out of place.” Rather than reconstituting mixed-race people as status Indians, which would have required allocation of more reserve lands at the expense of colonial claims, the state used provincial liquor controls and segments of the Indian Act relating to intoxication to incarcerate and displace them from reserves.

This arbitrary and malleable enforcement also played out at the level of beer parlours themselves. In his 2001 book, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954, historian Robert Campbell stressed that racist discrimination against Indigenous people (as well as Black and Asian patrons) were frequently a “constructed assessment based on appearance and behaviour.” Campbell wrote of situations when a woman who was not Indigenous was prohibited from drinking because “her facial characteristics are such as to place a waiter in a beer parlour on his guard,” while a waiter who had illegally served a status Indian alcohol was absolved in court because “the Indian in question dresses in a very highly respectable manner” and he was thus justified in being unsure.

“A First Nations person could pass as white or, just as important, be accepted as one if his behaviour and appearance were appropriate,” wrote Robert Campbell. “A banned mixed-race couple was a man of colour with a white woman. If the same man returned with an Aboriginal woman, the mixed couple ceased to exist.”

Indigenous people were constituted through the law as uniquely vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. For example, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) produced an expansive “interdiction list” that barred “drunkards” from buying alcohol. Because of the complete ban on alcohol sales to Indigenous people, this list was erroneously referred to as the “Indian list.” Criminologist and sociologist Mariana Valverde described this as “cultural slippage between the identity of someone unable to govern her or his drinking and the identity of the Canadian Indian.”

Replacing formal bans with informal segregation

Pressure for changes to racist prohibition measures increased following the Second World War and the ongoing inability for Indigenous veterans to drink at legions.

Interviews conducted in the early 1950s of Indigenous people in British Columbia found “a deep sense of injustice because they are fined and sent to provincial prison for drinking, a pleasure which white persons enjoy with impunity” and that “drinking has become associated with political consciousness and has grown into a symbol of native solidarity.” Campbell cited one of these interview subjects, who said: “When I get drunk I keep thinking about all the crooked things the white people have done to us, and I keep getting madder and madder—and pretty soon I am ready to fight.”

Liquor Commission storefront in Fort Garry, Manitoba, November 11, 1957. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection/University of Manitoba.

The Indian Act was amended in 1951 to permit alcohol consumption in licensed establishments. These changes were part of an ongoing assimilative campaign; a 1955 report prepared about Manitoba’s liquor policies quoted an Indian Health Services official who viewed easing liquor controls as part of the process of the “complete assimilation of the Indian.” These broader colonial ambitions continued throughout the 1960s, including the Sixties Scoop and Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper that proposed the abolishing of the Indian Act and treaties for the purposes of full assimilation of Indigenous peoples—which triggered a new wave of resistance, including Harold Cardinal’s Red Paper of 1970.

The provinces were now responsible for liquor policy, and maintained a deeply paternalistic framework that treated Indigenous people as morally incapable of consuming liquor responsibly. Indigenous people continued to be prohibited from government liquor stores and private clubs.

Perry says the notion of “respectable access” to alcohol was increasingly used as a means of social control, which amounted to a continuation of “de facto segregation” (even though the Indian Act no longer barred the sale of alcohol to Indigenous peoples). For example, a history of The Pas in Northern Manitoba by Owen Toews notes that in the 1960s: “The Legion in town didn’t acknowledge Cree Second World War veterans. The Gateway Hotel lifted its ban on serving Cree people but segregated the barroom.”

The northward expansion of the colonial state and extractive capital exposed already oppressed communities to the harmful effects of alcohol use. Manitoba Hydro’s construction of the Grand Rapids Dam “transformed life virtually overnight and a powerful mix of alcohol abuse and racism fed tensions between the now outnumbered locals and the newcomers.”

Harold Johnson wrote about the fallout from the opening of the Anglo-Rouyn Copper Mine near Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Elders from a community in the territory, he wrote, “had no teachings, nothing to look back upon, no cultural stories to help people who were asking them what to do about increased violence caused by alcohol.”

Although status Indians were legally allowed to consume alcohol after 1951, they couldn’t become intoxicated off their reserve. This racist double-standard was challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada by Joseph Drybones, who was fined for becoming intoxicated at a Yellowknife bar in 1967, and resulted in his acquittal and eventual repeal of the relevant Indian Act section in 1971. In 1985, the federal government completely repealed the legislation’s sections pertaining to liquor through the passage of Bill C-31, which more famously removed the sexist “marrying out” rule (in which women who married a non-Indigenous man would lose their Indian status).

Band councils were allocated responsibility for determining policy about the sale and possession of liquor, resulting in the creation of “dry reserves.” Johnson, writing in his book Firewater, argued that these self-administered bans have not been successful: “The death rate continues. It seems that those communities that have banned alcohol are the ones that suffer the most.”

Modernizing oppression

Over several decades, the colonial state rescinded its direct control of alcohol consumption by Indigenous people and downloaded regulatory powers onto individual communities.

But that didn’t mean that Indigenous people stopped being policed for alcohol use: far from it. Many legal and cultural prohibitions emerged in the place of formal Indian Act restrictions that maintained its racist legacy in more covert ways, increasingly framing interventions within the discourses of public health and safety. Racist tropes about Indigenous alcohol consumption continue to manifest in very visceral ways, despite supposed legality of the action of drinking.

“If I’m at a fancy event at the Fairmont in Winnipeg and everybody is handing out free wine, you’ll never guess who feels really anxious about it and likely is not going to drink anything because of that possible perception,” says Michael Redhead Champagne, a Winnipeg community activist and member of Shamattawa First Nation, in an interview with Canadian Dimension.

“I recognize that as a visible leader in the community, even me consuming one glass of wine at a gathering where 99 percent of the rest of the room is also consuming free wine to me is reinforcing those tropes,” he explains. “I feel like there is a disproportionate weight and burden that Indigenous leaders are carrying when it comes to health, when it comes to harm reduction, and when it comes to living in community at large. Non-Indigenous people are allowed to drink alcohol as much as they want.”

This racist perception of Indigenous drinking remains deeply ingrained in society. Three tightly interlinked and overlapping aspects of this systemic oppression will be examined: family separation and pathologization of Indigenous drinking, particularly by youth; alcohol-related bail conditions and the ongoing remand crisis; and gentrification and the physical destruction of Indigenous drinking spaces.

Combined, these help show how the discourse of Indigenous alcohol consumption—and alleged theft from liquor stores—has taken on such power and in turn justified brutal carceral responses, including the police murder of 16-year-old Eishia Hudson. To paraphrase an argument from Policing the Crisis: “Once you perceive ‘liquor theft’ not as a fact but as a relation—the relation between crime and the reaction to crime—the conventional wisdoms about ‘liquor theft’ fall apart in your hands.”

‘There’s always been a fear of future Indigenous generations’

Leslie Sabiston used to work with young Indigenous men, caught up in the justice system during Winnipeg’s notorious auto theft spree.

Throughout the mid-2000s, Winnipeg had the highest rates of motor vehicle theft in North America. In response, the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy was created, bringing together the Winnipeg Police, Manitoba Public Insurance, and Manitoba Justice to create a draconian crackdown including offenders being outfitted with ankle monitors, house arrest, and curfew checks every three hours.

Sabiston recalls that many people in the field of social services couldn’t figure out why the youth he was working with—some of the top car thieves in Winnipeg—were stealing cars and, in some cases, ramming cop cars while trying to get away. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) filled that gap.

“FASD came to fill in a lot of blanks and very quickly became a compelling explanatory tool for many people,” Sabiston explains. He says it was “pernicious in how it quickly came to conflate criminological concepts with popular psychological and behavioural ideas and understandings, all at the expense of more sociological and political explanations, such as mass inequality and systemic racism, that are more empirically verifiable and robust.”

Sabiston says much of this discourse first emerged out of foster and adopted homes, tracing back to the Sixties Scoop, which has been concisely described as the “mass removal of Aboriginal children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands.” Sabiston says there was no formal “Sixties Scoop” policy, but the large-scale apprehension of Indigenous children filled a policy vacuum after residential schools began to be shut down and social workers started replacing the roles played by Indian agents.

White parents largely combined their own desire for having a family with “a sense of altruistic discourse of saving or rescuing Indigenous children from poverty and depravity,” he says. While the process was ultimately a failed effort of assimilation, Sabiston stresses that it played out along complex lines of individual desire and feelings, and circumscribed concepts of “family,” “love,” and “care” that Indigenous children couldn’t be “fit” into.

An estimated 80 to 90 percent of Sixties Scoop placements ended in “breakdown” in which the child left the home or was put into foster care. Sabiston says that FASD emerged as a prognosis for why Indigenous youth weren’t integrating into white families.

“It became this overriding explanation,” he says. “That’s where it became very racialized and criminalized. “Because these kids are having such a hard time, and it’s such a major sociological phenomenon that you have all these Indigenous children that have been taken from their families, uprooted, families destroyed and then placed into this other very different environment: socioeconomically, racially, religiously,” he adds.

“They just thought it was going to be fine. Of course, it wasn’t. And then 20 years later it’s like ‘oh my god, what do we do with these kids?’ There’s these massive unforeseen outcomes that happen from things like the Sixties Scoop.”

FASD is notoriously difficult to diagnose. It’s also not a specifically Indigenous disorder, as popularly assumed. Sabiston says discussion of an individual’s supposed condition almost always relies on popular wisdom without scientific backing: “Oh yeah, he probably has it” or “he looks like he has it” or “he acts like he has it.” Even seemingly progressive interpretations of the condition that acknowledge the role of colonialism and intergenerational trauma can end up pathologizing the person as irreversibly damaged, justifying “wrap-around care” from social services that lead to even more surveillance and securitization.

“Ultimately it’s still an incarceration issue: how do we manage them?” Sabiston says of that discourse. “How do we get these kids off the street?” He adds that child welfare and youth incarceration are “very continuous with one another” in this way, working to “house the epidemic of uprooted and displaced Indigenous children created by generations of violent colonial policy.”

“That translates into other cultural motifs of these dangerous, ‘out of control little Indians,’” Sabiston says. “There’s always been a fear of future Indigenous generations.”

A poster produced by the Ontario Ministry of Health in 1978 to deter alcohol consumption. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Alcohol use acts as a floating signifier pathologizing Indigenous people, whether allegedly consumed by the parent or individual. This applies especially in death. Robert Cross, the Winnipeg Police officer who shot and killed Indigenous leader J.J. Harper in 1988, explicitly blamed Harper’s death on his alleged drinking: “The natives drink and they get in trouble,” he told a journalist. “Blaming the police for their troubles is like an alcoholic blaming the liquor store for being open late.” Two Métis sisters who repeatedly called Winnipeg Police for help before being stabbed to death in 2000 were disregarded by 911 operators, with one responding “everybody’s had a few to drink there, is that right?” before accusing them of lying.

In January 2018, the Globe and Mail was slammed for its article reporting that 15-year-old Tina Fontaine—pulled out of Winnipeg’s Red River four years earlier—“had drugs, alcohol in [her] system when she was killed.” The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs denounced the wording in a letter to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, arguing the headline undermined the fight for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and “serves to erase these memories from the public collective and replace them with the thought that she is just like the rest of them—‘another dead Indian.’”

Delilah Saunders, whose own sister Loretta was killed a few months before Tina, wrote in an article for Flare that “this is so often what we hear about an Indigenous woman or girl who is missing or found murdered. Reported stories discuss her lifestyle, often labelling it as high-risk. The story might mention sex work or drug use. This narrative is dangerous because it dehumanizes Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited peoples.”

The same framing occurred in media and legal processes following the killings of 22-year-old Colten Boushie in 2016 by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley and 16-year-old Eishia Hudson in 2020 by Winnipeg Police: Colten reportedly had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit when he was killed, while Eishia had allegedly stolen liquor from a liquor store. These narratives are exploited to help justify or explain away Indigenous death, like narratives about FASD are harnessed to account for teens not being able to “fit” in with white families.

“With Tina Fontaine, Colten Boushie and Eishia Hudson in particular, the public narrative of their involvement to alcohol leading up to their death or the toxicology reports filed after death, were paraded in the media as if they offered up some kind of justification in their murders,” Longman says.

“The way these cases were presented by the media tells us that predatorial behaviour, police violence and murder over property at the hands of white people are lesser crimes that shall go unpunished. Further, the nature in which they were presented also suggests that alcohol and substance consumption by Indigenous youth is reason enough for their death. It is a direct link to protecting and upholding white supremacy and white violence.”

The pathologization of Indigenous death was described as a process of “psychocentrism” by York University sociologist Mandi Gray in a 2016 article about inquests into two Indigenous youth hanging themselves in the Manitoba Youth Centre, a provincial jail in Winnipeg, in 2010.

While these deaths didn’t explicitly relate to alcohol use, Gray’s analysis of how the inquest recommendations “demonstrate the constitution of transgressive subjects via the construct of the defective Indigenous body” can be similarly applied to how Indigenous youth become ascribed by alleged alcohol consumption—FASD, intoxication, so-called antisocial behaviours—that in turn justify “institutional remedies.”

“They present the Indigenous psyche as something in need of repair, and settler colonial society as both the standard of normalcy and health, and the exemplar of how these young women should learn to behave, despite the challenges posed by their backgrounds,” Gray wrote.

This pathologization allows the settler-colonial state and its citizenry to absolve itself from responsibility for failing to provide basic necessities of life such as housing, food, and healthcare, and family separation through the child welfare system, incarceration, and police violence. The white supremacist obsession with racial purity and blood quantum has merely advanced a new object to produce authority and surveillance over alcohol, measured and disciplined by blood. The Indigenous person becomes marked by alcohol, regardless of whether they actually drink, while all other issues of colonialism, trauma, and organized abandonment by the state are disregarded.

“Because of these systems of family separation, Indigenous kids have to often commit these acts of ‘alleged theft against the state’ in an attempt to access the resources that they need that are not being provided for them to live a healthy life,” says Champagne about alleged liquor thefts by Indigenous youth, including Eishia. “Why aren’t they living a healthy life? Let’s take a look at the systems of family separation that young people are dealing with.

“And I don’t know Eishia’s story, but I know the story of too many other young people in my life who have had this relationship with substances or this relationship with alcohol or crime,” he adds. “And I know these young people are not doing this to hurt others. I know these young people are doing the best that they can with the tools that they have available, which are super limited.”

Incarcerated for drinking

This pathologization of Indigenous alcohol use is fully systematized through carceral policies such as conditions linked to bail (charged and awaiting trial), probation (part of or the entirety of a sentence), and parole (early release from jail or prison).

For example, Errol Greene was arrested in 2016 for breaching a bail condition to abstain from alcohol, with the condition resulting from being charged for mischief a few months earlier.

Greene, a 26-year-old Indigenous man, was incarcerated at the Winnipeg Remand Centre for the bail breach. Two days later, after being repeatedly denied access to anti-seizure medication by correctional officers, he died of internal bleeding in hospital. Greene’s death was an extreme example of the consequences of alcohol consumption being policed through the so-called justice system: he had not even been convicted for mischief, but was killed by the state due to the criminalization of alcohol use as a bail condition.

Despite supposed improvements in sentencing practices with the use of Gladue reports—which detailsan Indigenous person’s history and pertinent conditions such as suspected FASD or substance use issues for a judge to consider—alcohol consumption remains a key tool for police and courts to control the actions and movements of Indigenous people.

An image produced in 1977 depicting a suspicious-looking man exchanging cash for bottles of alcohol at the window of an unidentified building on reserve. The Indigenous man in the building is saying, “Hah-Aii,” as both look at the police car that is approaching with its sirens blaring. This caricature is a reference to the popular film, The French Connection. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

This has the most extreme impacts in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where three-quarters of all adults admitted to custody are Indigenous. An estimated 70 percent of prisoners in provincial jails in Manitoba are held in remand—meaning they haven’t been convicted for a crime but couldn’t get bail, or breached a bail condition—which is the main reason for the province having by far the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the country. The situation is somehow even worse in Northern Manitoba, where accused people have been required to spend months waiting for a bail hearing and having to be transported 400 kilometers in a prison van between The Pas and Thompson.

When an accused person is let out on bail, the Crown recommends bail conditions that are supposedly related to the offence. However, University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land says in an interview with Canadian Dimension that conditions are often unrelated to the offence and nearly impossible to abide by.

Police exert a considerable amount of influence over what charges are laid, often throwing an array of recommended charges at a person at hoping a few will stick when the Crown makes its decision. Dobchuk-Land says the Crown often selects charges with the lowest burden of proof if there isn’t a lot of evidence, resulting in charges like mischief (which Errol was charged with). The number of charges against a person also influences whether a judge determines whether to let someone out on bail or remand them into custody until trial.

A 2014 article by criminologist Justin Piché attributed some of the spike in remand population across Canada to risk aversion (of an accused person not showing up to a court appearance or committing another highly publicized crime while on bail) by the carceral system, resulting in more charges being laid and more bail conditions placed.

A report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) published that same year, titled Set Up to Fail: Bail and the Revolving Door of Pre-trial Detention, said that court orders to abstain from consuming alcohol was one of the most frequent bail conditions used, appearing in 45.5 percent of bail orders. Another 22.7 percent of bail orders in Manitoba prohibited the accused person from entering any establishment whose primary source of revenue is from alcohol sales.

Other frequently used bail conditions include prohibitions of weapons possession, not appearing at certain addresses or being in proximity of particular people, or not contacting victims or witnesses of the alleged crime. Over half of all bail releases in Ontario were required to attend treatment or counselling, according to the report.

Katherine Bueti, founding senior partner of the Winnipeg criminal defence law firm Bueti Wasyliw Wiebe, says the way that courts have dealt with alcohol and bail conditions have changed over the last decade, evolving from an automatic condition on virtually every bail to something more specifically catered to people facing substance-related charges—such as impaired driving or possession of drugs or crimes allegedly committed in furtherance of drug use such as property theft for the purposes of alcohol or drug procurement. She says that conditions are increasingly applied based on perceived ability to comply, although “some judges will still impose it no matter what.”

Breaching a bail condition can result in an administration of justice charge, a criminal offence. The CCLA report found that administration of justice charges were the most serious charge in 20 percent of all criminal and federal cases, with half of those resulting from bail breaches. Manitoba’s zero-tolerance bail breach policy, introduced by the provincial NDP, means that an accused person can be busted for being a few minutes late to a meeting and removes discretion whether to breach someone on bail for violating a condition.

Bueti says there are a “litany of reasons” as to how an alcohol-related bail violation comes to the attention of police, including calls from an observer notifying them of a person becoming intoxicated or police investigating a noise complaint or a similar issue coming across a breach. Police may also identify intoxication based on erratic behaviour that they can’t explain, slurring words or lack of balance, or if it’s someone who police are already familiar with.

“If there’s anything that sort of makes them suspicious or a little leery, they will note it in their report and that triggers the process,” Bueti says. “Often, what will happen is they will ask people ‘have you ingested any alcohol or drugs?’ Maybe they’ll ask other people around.”

Bueti says that every bail breach warrants jail time, up to 30 days on average for each breach. That jail time can compound based on the number of breaches, escalating to 45, 60, or 90 days.

Similarly, breaking a parole condition lands a person right back into the system. A lengthy profile about 37-year-old Elliot Hudson was published earlier this year by Global News, chronicling the Ottawa man’s struggles with alcohol use. Hudson was paroled in 2019 but started drinking five days later, which violated one of his parole conditions: “He woke up hungover and scared,” wrote journalist Jane Gerster. “He worried he wouldn’t be able to stop drinking again, so he called his parole officer to come clean. He thought she might be able to steer him towards a detox centre or some sort of community-based treatment. She issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest.”

Dobchuk-Land says that this process of alcohol-based release conditions serves the strategic interests of Winnipeg Police, who are increasingly focused on doing “proactive policing” through their so-called “smart policing” initiative rather than “reactive policing” that primarily responds to calls.

This “proactive” approach “relies heavily on the policing of people with existing conditions and the policing of places where those people live and work,” Dobchuk-Land says. That gives police legal justification to “check up” on people with bail or prohibition conditions and breach anyone who they find in violation, including consuming alcohol or being in a bar. Dobchuk-Land says it’s a “very useful tool” for police to monitor people.

“One of the mechanisms through which the police have so much power is that they’ve been able to enter so many people into the system so that so many people are living with conditions so everything is a legal intervention and they can breach people so there are many administration of justice breaches,” she says.

This process reflects an earlier orientation established with the aforementioned auto theft suppression strategy and expanded with the subsequent gang suppression strategy, in which key offenders were identified and subjected to ankle monitoring, house arrest, and near-constant surveillance.

Dobchuk-Land says that this focuses on policing individual people rather than policing incidents, something that had always informally existed in the criminal justice system but was formalized in these strategies. The same is now playing out with the response to alleged liquor thefts, with the provincial liquor corporation posting a list of people charged with theft on their website and a Crown prosecutor assigned to specifically prosecute alleged liquor thieves—a highly focused effort made even more concerning in conjunction with the new security screening process that scans IDs with next to no transparency about the usage of personal information.

In November, the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association told CBC News: “There’s no way that they should be able to swipe people’s ID cards or driver’s licences, because then they’re going to be getting data that goes way beyond whether or not the person is the legal age.”

Of course, alcohol use doesn’t end when someone is incarcerated: it simply makes it even harder to access. Many prisoners make homemade alcohol out of various food products, resulting in 4,300 seizures of alcohol between 2012 and 2016 by Correctional Service Canada. Ivan Zinger, the correctional investigator of Canada, estimates that 80 percent of prisoners have a history of substance use and two-thirds were intoxicated when they committed a crime.

All of these measures help advance the pathologization of alcohol use by Indigenous people, combining with discourses around family separation, FASD, and death to maintain it as an object of individual and social concern that has to be managed through increasingly drastic measures. Alcohol use, along with drug use more broadly, serves as a ready-made justification for intervention and control, built upon decades and centuries of racist mythmaking and surveillance of who is allowed to drink.

“It’s a really jarring division in terms of people who are allowed to live without police harassment versus people who are legally subject to police harassment,” Dobchuk-Land says.

Demolishing Indigenous drinking spaces

Despite alcohol consumption by Indigenous people being made legal in 1951, the R v Drybones decision of 1969 allowing intoxication off reserves, and regulatory powers downloaded to band councils in 1985, racist liquor control measures continued advancing through the pathologization of Indigenous people and alcohol-related carceral policies resulting in a deadly remand crisis.

Supposedly progressive reforms have only entrenched discrimination in more pallatable forms. Unsurprisingly, this expansion of racist liquor control has grown outwards from the individual person, and the carceral state of police, jails, and courts, to the urban geographical form itself. Over the last several decades, developers and politicians in Winnipeg have actively sought to eradicate Indigenous drinking spaces through gentrification and violent policing practices, physically replacing them with bars and parties for rich white people to enjoy.

This process was meticulously detailed on Owen Toews’ 2018 book, Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg. In it, he argues that a system of urban apartheid prevented Indigenous people from accessing many of Winnipeg’s bars, hotels, cafes, restaraunts and other public spaces throughout the postwar period—especially those south of Portage Avenue, which were “bitterly inhospitable” to Indigenous people. As a result, Main Street and the North End became hubs for Indigenous people to gather, including for music and radical political organizing. Bars and hotels that sold alcohol were key parts of this geography.

Toews writes about how, against the desires of community members who were advocating for an Indigenous development vision for the Main Street strip rooted in Indigenous-owned housing, schools, and businesses (called “Neeginan,” Cree for “our place”), the City of Winnipeg cast the area as “a pathological danger” that “ought to be policed, contained, and eventually eliminated.” Many of Main Street’s hotels were bulldozed and replaced with shelters, food banks, and an opera house. This displaced the bar scene to the Bell Hotel on Main Street and the St. Regis and Garrick Hotels, both south of Portage Avenue.

These hotels then became the focus of CentreVenture and the Chipman family’s ambitions to remake downtown Winnipeg for luxury condos and the much-anticipated return of the Winnipeg Jets. CentreVenture was created in 1999 by city council as an arm’s length corporation with funding from the state to develop dozens of municipally owned properties in Winnipeg’s downtown.

Toews writes that “the very existence of CentreVenture and its new plan indicated the impossibility of capitalist markets functioning without police and a litany of other state supports,” which included the Winnipeg Police’s “Operation Clean Sweep” to police so-called “disorder” and an assortment of police cadets and downtown business patrols. Its first objective was to buy up and close the Bell Hotel in 2007 due to complaints from other businesses in the area about the impacts of its alcohol sales (this resulted in the eviction of 75 residents with no relocation program). According to Toews, the closure of the Bell Hotel’s bar “eliminated one of the few remaining unsupervised gathering places for neighbourhood residents.”

This process of “retaking the city”—which geographer Neil Smith articulated as a question of “on whom is revenge to be exacted?”—was swiftly followed by a campaign to destroy hotel and beer vendors in the city’s downtown; this plan was justified using an NDP-commissioned report that recommended the destruction of at least seven downtown hotels. This resulted in the buying up and closing of the St. Regis to specifically shut down its bar, and destruction of the Carlton Inn. Both of these were long-time hubs for Indigenous people that were frequently slandered by the city and its obedient media class as “unsafe” or “troubled property” and making people feel “uncomfortable” due to alleged public intoxication and aggressive panhandling.

All of this was to make way for the so-called SHED—the “Sports, Hospitality, and Entertainment District”—which would serve as the centrepiece of the new hockey arena to house the Winnipeg Jets, alongside the new downtown police station. In an interview with Canadian Dimension, Toews says that CentreVenture explicitly tried to push the local Indigenous community out of the area by targeting Indigenous bars.

“They wanted to get rid of people,” Toews says. “Alcohol consumption is used as an excuse just to get rid of people. It makes them an easy target.

“They very explicitly targeted the bars at the St. Regis and Carlton hotels because it was Native people who went there and lived there, and because those properties were in close proximity to properties that were being redeveloped and significantly invested in,” he explains. “They wanted to get Indigenous people away from their investments. I think they used that long tradition of white people not tolerating Native people drinking as an excuse to get Native people away from those properties.”

In the place of these previous sites of Indigenous gathering, CentreVenture and its corporate partners constructed a new assortment of bars and drinking establishments—but for a rich white clientele: suburbanites visiting the downtown for a Jets game, or lawyers and start-up bros living nearby in newly constructed condo towers. The Carlton Inn was literally replaced by True North Square, a series of luxury towers that now houses, among other things, a provincial liquor store (and received an exemption from the city to build affordable housing units). The MTS Centre, the arena where the Winnipeg Jets play, was described by Toews as what “could well be the single largest concentration of public intoxication between Calgary and the Great Lakes.”

“These are intense spaces of alcohol consumption and white drunkenness,” says Sabiston about the Winnipeg Jets Whiteout parties and Canada Day celebrations in Osborne Village. “Violence is happening: people are getting into fights, people are getting stabbed. It’s acceptable somehow.”

Getting routinely buzzed at the Forks, hip microbreweries, over mimosas at brunch, or while drinking in parks are regarded as acceptable habits, so long as the participants are white. Longman says: “Alcoholism within white society is entirely normalized, and at times, even fetishized. Alcoholism is so celebrated within whiteness that it is marketed and branded as a lifestyle.”

Such drinking habits can lead to people of colour feeling less safe, with drunk people more likely to carry out racist attacks.

Toews says that CentreVenture and the downtown “business improvement zones” continue to obsessively stalk where Indigenous people drink, to try displace them from the area in fear that they will jeopardize private investments and white comfort. The washrooms at popular downtown bars are locked to discourage the “wrong kind of people” from using them. Last October, Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman advocated for the closure of a downtown Liquor Mart where large quantities of high-alcohol sherry is sold.

The geography of racist liquor control policies continues to expand and reconstitute itself in the name of “community safety” and “downtown revitalization,” destroying and displacing Indigenous people and drinking spaces.

As Toews suggests, it is key that we understand this process as highly intentional, rather than a series of well-meaning mistakes. Hotels and bars used by Indigenous people were explicitly targeted by developers and politicians as sites that needed to be removed and replaced with gentrified establishments selling craft beer and $15 cocktails to attract a rich and predominantly white clientele to generate private profits—and hopefully move into the high-end condos in the area.

To succeed, these discourses combined centuries-old discriminations against Indigenous people: that they can’t hold their liquor, that it irrevocably damages them, that it explains their poverty and death and incarceration, that they need to be forcibly separated from it for their own good. It also rejected outright alternative development visions for Winnipeg created by Indigenous people, instead advancing a racist and alcohol-entrenched reconfiguration of the city.

An image depicting a long RCMP paddy-wagon parked outside a bar. At the back of the paddy-wagon an RCMP officer is holding the door open for an Indigenous man. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Alternative visions

This article has sought to demonstrate how racist liquor control measures have evolved and become entrenched over time to maintain the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous people.

Throughout this history, alcohol has been weaponized to justify the expansion of policing and to discipline citizenship through practices of enfranchisement and liquor service based on arbitrary readings of race (and mixed race). It has flooded remote communities via man camps for the purposes of resource extraction, leading to extreme social disruption and danger for Indigenous women and girls. While outright bans on liquor consumption by Indigenous people have been gradually removed, significant discrimination remains, typically in the vocabulary of “public health” and “community safety.” Three of these manifestations have been briefly explored: the relationship between family separation, FASD discourse, and pathologization of Indigenous death; alcohol-related bail and probation conditions; and gentrification and destruction of Indigenous drinking spaces.

These are far from the only relevant aspects—but serve as some fundamental explanations for how and why the racist moral panic about alleged liquor store thefts has taken on such public resonance. Many aspects of history are now repeating, quite literally: historian Adele Perry notes that by introducing secure entrances with ID scans, the provincial liquor stores are bringing back the physical format that they had until the 1970s in which all alcohol was kept behind a desk and retailed based on a politics of “respectable access.”

“Liquor is just ready in this particular context of Western Canada to become a focus of a lot of anxieties about safety, about the social order, about race, about morality,” Perry says. “It’s just ready to roll.”

Policy discussions around “community safety” in Winnipeg continue to be controlled by pro-police politicians and organizations. Organizations like Millennium for All, which is fighting to get airport-like security measures removed from the city’s downtown library, have frequently challenged this trend by asking “public safety for whom?” and working to differentiate feeling “uncomfortable” from feeling “unsafe.”

However, groups advocating for a different definition of community safety continue to be sidelined by the city’s power brokers. Sabiston notes that Indigenous people are often invited to participate in committees to make positive contributions without any access to funds or power to actually influence structural changes. Champagne points out that the City of Winnipeg recently spent $150,000 on a report from consulting giant MNP about “crime prevention” while simultaneously awarding a measly total of $100,000 to 23 community groups including the North End Women’s Centre, Mama Bear Clan, and the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba for frontline community safety and crime prevention (receiving a max of $5,000 each).

“I think the City of Winnipeg needs to look at the way it’s allocating its dollars in crime prevention,” he says. “Maybe $150,000 for a report versus $100,000 for 23 groups doing frontline family support: there might be a little bit of confusion of which one is more important.”

As always, there are many alternative visions for society that fights back against racist and carceral policies which result in Indigenous dispossession and death. History is not fate, and we can organize for different material conditions if a clean break is made from existing discourses of liquor control.

Once again, this does not suggest that harmful alcohol use does not exist, or that people do not experience the impacts of alleged thefts and assaults. Rather, as Black and Indigenous abolitionists have been stating for decades, the reality is that punitive measures do not resolve these issues. In a recent podcast episode, Ruth Wilson Gilmore said: “The threat of violence and actual expression of violence—interpersonal—only produces more of itself. This is the knot we’re trying to untangle: knowing how difficult it is to let go of the feeling—which is real, I’m not saying it’s not real—to let go of the feeling that you want to hurt somebody who hurt you.”

The same approach can be applied to issues of alcohol use and its associated social impacts.

“The best place to start undoing the harmful perception of alcohol consumption within our own Indigenous communities is learning more about and engaging in harm reduction,” Longman says. “While alcoholism remains present within our communities, understanding more about users and their needs would reduce the stigmatization we are so used to from the settler state and within our own lives.”

While harm reduction is frequently discussed for drugs such as heroin via safe consumption sites, decriminalization, and safe supply, there is less explicit discussion about the same approaches being taken to alcohol use. Part of that is likely attributed to the near-universal public acceptance of drinking, as part of what author Ann Dowsett Johnston describes as an “alcogenic” society. A renown substance use researcher once told me that he had been attending international harm reduction conferences for the previous 25 years and has tended to be the only one talking about alcohol.

But there are very successful harm reduction programs designed for alcohol users, including managed alcohol programs in which people are provided with a regular and tailored dose of alcohol to reduce acute harms (particularly for people consuming non-beverage alcohol such as mouthwash). As Champagne says, these programs means that people “can have access to the things that they need to care for themselves and reduce harms over time.”

To be sure, sobriety can be a helpful solution for some people. But abstinence-only programming such as Alcoholics Anonymous have long been critiqued for their lack of scientific rigour and long-term success: that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for some, but it certainly doesn’t work for everyone. As indicated by the name, harm reduction takes the approach of minimizing the most harmful aspects of alcohol use while promoting individual self-determination (which may mean continued alcohol use, or a shift to less or even no use). As the lengthy Atlantic feature critiquing AA put it, “promoting abstinence as the only valid goal of treatment likely deters people with mild or moderate alcohol-use disorder from seeking help. The prospect of never taking another sip is daunting, to say the least.”

Champagne says this approach can be integrated into community-based safety measures at liquor stores, replacing security with community hosts like those used at various non-profit health centres in Winnipeg. These kinds of responses can connect people with resources, rather than threatening them with police and other carceral responses.

As argued throughout this article, liquor control tends to be far more about control than liquor. It has been part and parcel of a network of genocidal policies of colonialism: residential schools, forced relocation, family separation, police violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, evictions and displacement, and ongoing dispossession from lands and waters. Rather than relinquish colonial management of Indigenous peoples, the state reconstitutes liquor control as a means of justifying continued interventions.

Alcohol use can be a problem, as can pretty much anything. But resolving such issues cannot be done by the capitalist state. In fact, it is antithetical to its mission of privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social services. Addressing these harms requires a radical commitment to life-sustaining services—housing, harm reduction, mental health and substance use resources, food security, income supports—and a dismantling of the carceral state.

“Secure housing is probably the most obvious thing,” Sabiston says when asked what Indigenous youth who he worked with could benefit from. “So many of our youth are bouncing from house to house to house, don’t even have their own clothes, are always trading clothes. There’s certain low-humming anxieties and structures of uncertainty that the rest of us just don’t have to deal with. That has such a huge impact.”

Meanwhile, Longman emphasizes that solutions must address child apprehension, ongoing land disputes, and policing of Indigenous people.

“True justice would look like returning children back to their Indigenous communities, returning land back, and dissolving the police force,” Longman concludes. “Spending priorities would instead address housing solutions, harm reduction and safe injection sites, mental health supports, and Indigenous-led healing resources.”

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.


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