The alcohol problem
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The alcohol problem

The coureurs des bois (French traders) gave alcohol to the Indians in exchange for their furs.
Alcohol was one of the most important commodities in the fur trade - and it had devastating effects on native people. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Alcohol was one of the most important commodities in the fur trade - and it had devastating effects on native people. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Alcohol increased their profits. The colony was divided into two camps: those who supported the trade in alcohol with the Indians and those who denounced it as dishonourable. Alcohol had a devastating effect on those who believed in illusions and spirits. François de Laval, Bishop of Quebec, described the effects in his Pastoral Letter of February 24, 1662:

"The village or the cabin where savages drink spirits is an image of hell: fire is flickering about on all sides: they hack away with axes and knives, spilling blood everywhere; everywhere are heard dreadful yells and howling. They are at each others throats, they rip each others' ears off. The father and mother throw their little children onto hot coals or into boiling caldrons."

As problems increased, native leaders demanded that the traffic in spirits be stopped, and François de Laval issued a threat of excommunication to the French who were giving alcohol to the Indians:

"Since we are obliged by the duties of our position to oppose with all our power this flood of disorder, we hereby proclaim the excommunication of all those who give, in whatever manner, intoxicating drinks to the savages, unless it be one or two cups per day of the ordinary little measure that is given to French labourers, in other words, two small shots of spirits per day."

But commercial competition won out over good intentions.
Louis Buade, Comte de Frontenac as portrayed by Pierre Chagnon in Canada: A People's History.
Louis Buade, Comte de Frontenac as portrayed by Pierre Chagnon in Canada: A People's History.
The alcohol trade became so ill-regulated that the King ordered Frontenac to summon twenty of the most important merchants in the colony.
Appointed governor of New France, Louis Buade, Comte de Frontenac ignored his orders to consolidate the St. Lawrence settlement. (As portrayed by Pierre Chagnon in Canada: A People's History)
Appointed governor of New France, Louis Buade, Comte de Frontenac ignored his orders to consolidate the St. Lawrence settlement. (As portrayed by Pierre Chagnon in Canada: A People's History)
They gathered in Quebec on October 10, 1678. Only two out of the twenty were against the sale of alcohol to the natives.

According to the Intendant Jacques Duchesneau, "...the trade in question puts both the French and the savages in a state of damnation, the one party for their defiance of the orders of the church and the other because they only drink to get intoxicated." Some people, such as the explorer Louis Jolliet, looked for a compromise and proposed:

...that the habitants be allowed to give them alcohol in their homes and in those places where it is traded in moderation, and that any disorders meet with punishment."

The majority of the merchants were in favour of the trade in spirits, with no restrictions.
Cavelier de La Salle was among them. And it was obvious that he also expressed the views of his associate, Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac:

"It is up to lay people exclusively to decide what is good or bad for trade, and not churchmen... The savages won't trade unless we sell it [alcohol] to them, which is the only reason that makes them come among us... they can find it closer and in greater abundance from the foreigners."

Louis XIV finally allowed the trade in alcohol in French settlements but forbade alcohol to be brought into Indian villages.
An anonymous observer wrote:

"Frenchmen unworthy of the name derive huge profits from this disgraceful commerce, because once they have intoxicated the savages, they strip off their clothes, their weapons and anything else they may have sold them beforehand. Some Frenchmen have admitted to getting 15,000 livres worth of beaver skins out of a single barrel of spirits worth no more than 200 livres."


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