The 'drunken Indian' stereotype and social healing

In many circles, the stereotype of the "drunken Indian" was once all-powerful. It was assumed by some that if you were of aboriginal ancestry, whether you were Métis, Inuit, non-status or First Nation, then you had a drinking problem.

In many circles, the stereotype of the "drunken Indian" was once all-powerful. It was assumed by some that if you were of aboriginal ancestry, whether you were Métis, Inuit, non-status or First Nation, then you had a drinking problem.

Employers felt justified in refusing employment to aboriginal people based on this stereotype. Landlords would not rent to aboriginal people. Some establishments, bars mostly, refused to let aboriginal people enter. Taxi drivers drove past aboriginal people on the street. The daily humiliations added up to real social and economic barriers.

Today, aboriginal people have put some distance between themselves and the stereotype. At least, it's no longer socially acceptable to assume that aboriginal people are drunks, nor is it legal to base your actions on this assumption.

Take, for example, the public disgust — especially among aboriginal people — over a Conservative staffer's comments during the election campaign.

While campaigning in Maniwaki, Que., last month, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon was met by a group of protesters from Barriere Lake. Cannon listened and left, but his constituency assistant, Darlene Lannigan, paused to exchange words with the lead protester, Norman Matchewan.

The exchange was caught on a videotape aired on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and went like this:

"If you behave and you're sober and there's no problems and if you don't do a sit down and whatever, I don't care," Lannigan said to Matchewan. She then added: "One of them showed up the other day and was drinking."

"Are you calling me an alcoholic?" replied Matchewan.

"I'm not calling you an alcoholic. No. It was just to say that you're in a federal office. If you're coming in to negotiate, I expect, there's [decorum] that has to be respected," said Lannigan.

Flawed logic

The Conservative staffer apparently assumed that because one aboriginal person, possibly a protester, showed up on her doorstep and had been drinking, then she was justified in scolding Matchewan, the lead and sober protester.

Her words seem to be a clear example of someone who is operating from the "drunken Indian" stereotype. If you were to apply her flawed logic to another situation, it would look something like this:

Remember when an inebriated Alberta Premier Ralph Klein paid a visit to a homeless shelter in 2001? Or when B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell was arrested for drunk driving in Hawaii?

By Lannigan's logic, we could then assume that all premiers in Canada have a drinking problem.

Of course, to speak of the stereotype, I must also address some of the supposed reasons why it arose. It's simple: there is no "reason." Not all aboriginal people have a drinking problem. Like any other stereotype, it is not based on fact or rational thinking.

Canadians are not all polite, goodness knows. And we don't all live in igloos and wear parkas. This may be the case for some of us, but the stereotype is still wrong.

Communities struggle with addiction

I do not want to deny the very real problems with addictions among aboriginal people. Far too many communities have high rates of alcohol and drug use and heartbreakingly high rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder among their children.

The reasons why aboriginal people have struggled with addictions, individually and collectively, have been the focus of many a report or survey through the years. The root causes are pretty well documented at this point — residential schools, the Indian Act, child welfare issues, Indian agents, geographic isolation, racism, intergenerational trauma — the list goes on.

We must recognize that many aboriginal people have turned to drinking as an escape from a reality over which they have had little control. It's a common belief that a lot of the problems with addictions began when parents were left with empty arms and homes after their children were forcibly taken away from them and put in residential schools. (Then we all know what happened at residential schools.)

Aboriginal people have been victims of misguided government policy and detrimental acts of colonialism for generations. But at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, an individual must decide to stop being a victim and only then can a person truly leave addictions behind.

Protect the children, heal the parents

It also has to happen on a community level. There are lots of examples of aboriginal people, leaders and communities who were victimized, but have chosen to abstain from alcohol and drugs and are actively working to help their communities.

There are lots of examples of how community-based healing is helping aboriginal people cope with their histories of abuse and residential schools and various other forms of colonialism, without turning to alcohol or other drugs.

Our job as concerned citizens is to create an environment that supports people on their road to recovery and that protects children while their parents and grandparents heal. We need to make success stories the rule, rather than the exception.

One indicator that this healing process is growing in momentum is that it now being called a "movement" with national and global reach. There is even an international conference held every four years called Healing Our Spirits Worldwide.

Marie Wadden, a longtime CBC journalist, released a book this year about the movement, called Where the Pavement Ends: Canada's Aboriginal Recovery Movement and the Urgent Need for Reconciliation. Her book adds a crucial element of urgency to the need for social healing in aboriginal communities and the necessity of increased support for initiatives that are proving successful.

So, let's spend our energy in supporting the healing, rather than propping up a label that only makes the healing process that much harder. The longer the healing is delayed, the more children we put at risk.