Commentary

Testimonials

“What Mr. Best has to say in There Is No Difference is important.”

Professor Tom Flanagan, University of Calgary, member of the Royal Society of Canada and author of First Nations? Second Thoughts (McGill-Queens University Press)


“Mr. Best shows a principled determination, with There Is No Difference, to ride this tiger of a topic into the colosseum of political correctness.”

Barbara Kay, National Post Weekly Columnist


“In his newly published book, There Is No Difference, lawyer Peter Best devotes a chapter to unpacking the consequences of the Haida Nation decision. It makes for fascinating reading. Haida Nation jurisprudence, Best says, decrees a devolution of Crown sovereignty to Indians- a handing back of previously-surrendered power, effectively turning Indian bands into a third order of government…And so what happened to Kinder Morgan- and has happened to other companies since Haida Nation- will eventually kill all private interest in major infrastructure and mining projects. Aboriginal correctness will slow down our economy…”

Barbara KayThe Villain in the Trans-Mountain Fiasco- and Other Fiascos Since 2004- is the Supreme Court of Canadawww.thepostmillenial.com, September 11th, 2018.


“This is a volume of deeply researched common sense. It stands as a beacon in the swamp of Indian (or “aboriginal”- your choice) law and a path to hope for the victims.”

Gordon Gibson– author of A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective-Promote the Individual, 2009), national columnist, Special Assistant to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1968 to 1972, B.C. MLA, Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, and, in 2008, awarded the Order of British Columbia.


“The Trudeau government and First Nations’ leaders want to “close the gap” between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. Peter Best agrees, but his solution is not their tried and perenially failed one: to merely continue and tinker with the status quo. In There Is No Difference Mr. Best compellingly argues that to really “close the gap” approaches and laws must radically change, and the reserve system must be ended. There Is No Difference is an important contribution to the national conversation that must take place about Canada’s most serious and pressing social issue: the situation of our First Peoples in modern, 21st century Canada.”

Colin Alexander– Ottawa- former publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North


“Anyone who cares about the future of Indigenous Canadians must read Peter Best’s There Is No Difference.”

James McCrae– former member for Brandon of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba from 1986-1999. During that period served in Cabinet as Attorney General, Environment Minister, Minister of Health and Minister of Education.


November 30th, 2018 Winnipeg Sun review of There Is No Difference

GIESBRECHT: Canada needs one law for all

Nelson Mandela AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Files

 

In an important new book, Ontario lawyer Peter Best is undertaking to start a long repressed national conversation about Canada’s legal and social relations with its Indigenous founding people.

In There Is No Difference, (see Amazon.ca) Best asks the question: Why would Nelson Mandela’s goal and vision of “one set of laws for all” not be goal and vision of all Canadians with respect to our Indigenous population? Why do our elites want to keep and extend the demonstrably-failing, “separate but equal,” apartheid-like status quo? Why not have complete legal equality for all?

Best makes a strong case for Canada to not just “talk” of Nelson Mandela but emulate him.

There Is No Difference makes the compelling argument that the ill-conceived and harmfully-interpreted section 35 of the Constitution, which protects “existing Aboriginal rights,” needs to be legally curtailed. This would take back the Crown sovereignty that the Supreme Court, with its “consult and accommodate” rulings, has recklessly devolved onto Indian bands. (Witness the economic carnage of the failed pipelines resulting from these rulings.)

Best argues that, with this legal change in place, the reserves, the Indian Act, and other purely race-based special rights and entitlements of Canada’s Indigenous population, could be phased out as proposed in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy.

As Best writes, Nelson Mandela was not the only inspired and courageous leader who saw clearly and advocated strongly that all citizens of a nation must have exactly the same set of civic rights and responsibilities (if that country and its citizenry are to be successful). Think of Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and of Western Canada’s pioneer moral hero in this area, Indigenous lawyer and AFN co-founder William Wuttunee. In his brave 1971 book, Ruffled Feathers, Wuttunee advocated for the White Paper/Nelson Mandela way forward.

In apartheid South Africa citizens carried status cards denoting their race. Their rights, or lack thereof, flowed accordingly. Mandela campaigned for many decades, and from inside his jail cell, against these loathsome symbols of overt racism. The world responded, and recognized the moral truth of what he was saying. Status cards, and the entire rotten regime they represented, came tumbling down. Canada’s political leaders, including AFN leader Shawn Atleo, all seemingly honouring what he stood for, travelled to his funeral.

Yet these same leaders, back in Canada, continued to insist (even more so today) that Indian Act status cards, which serve the essentially same illiberal function as the South African ones did, remain! And our Supreme Court, in the recent Daniels case, piled on with more unintentionally racist “Indian blood” reasoning, adding 600,000 “Metis” as new candidates for purely race-based, dependency-assuring cards.

Best argues that instead of binding us together, our elites, with all this race-based conduct, are dividing us — creating resentment and preventing true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. With our current laws, the situation in Canada is getting worse, not better.

In There Is No Difference, Best provides the only true way forward for Canada to reconcile — a future of one set of laws for all.

— Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge for the Province on Manitoba, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Winnipeg.


Sudbury Star article, November 7th, 2018

Sudbury author wades into controversial territory

Peter Best has released There is No Difference, the book which he recently published, and which is available via his website, www.thereisnodifference.ca.

Peter Best sees a different way forward for Canada and its First Nations peoples.
Rather than the “nation-to-nation fantasy” he believes is preferred by some elites in both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, the Sudbury lawyer says legal equality, in terms of both rights and responsibilities, is the answer for improving the quality of lives of First Nations peoples.
His has detailed the arguments to support his position in There is No Difference, the book which he recently published, and which is available via his website, www.thereisnodifference.ca. His book has earned endorsements from the likes of columnist Barbara Kay and University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan.
Best recently took a few moments to take part in our 10 Questions feature, discussing his background, his book and why believes it’s important.
1. Can you tell us about your background as a writer?
My background is that of a lawyer, not a writer. Practicing law involves, in order to make a legal argument, a lot of considered, fact and evidence-based writing. Thus, there is a distinct, lawyer-like style to my writing in There Is No Difference. That might make the book dull at times, but the truth of this important subject is complicated and nuanced and some extra length and “dullness” is required to conscientiously serve it.
2. Can you tell us a little about There is No Difference?
My book offers a solution to ending the tragically high degree of poverty and social dysfunction amongst Canada’s first peoples — legal equality. For decades our Indigenous and non-Indigenous elites have been doubling down on the apartheid-like, separate-but-equal status quo that has so harmed the vast majority of vulnerable, marginalized and powerless Indigenous Canadians — all to no benefit for them. I argue for the Nelson Mandela solution: Complete legal equality with the rest of Canadians — the necessary precursor to social and economic equality.
3. Why was it important for you to write it?
Honest and respectful public discussion of important social issues is a duty of citizenship in a democracy. I considered it my public duty to speak my mind on this crucial issue.
4. What do you hope people will take away from it?
I believe my views as set out in my book are those of the majority of caring, racially-decent Canadians, who are appalled by the status quo but are afraid to speak out for fear of being called a racist, or suffering in their career. I hope to inspire others, especially people of power and influence, to start to speak out, and thus start a much-needed conversation about where we, as Canadians, are headed here.
5. What has response been like so far?
The response to the message of my book has been generally positive. In addition, people wonder at my daring in writing and publishing it, which mainly shows the terrible state of free speech in Canada on this issue. Strangely, in Canada, making the Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King argument for racial integration — equal rights and responsibilities for Indigenous Canadians — is branded as racist. In fact, the opposite. In my opinion the status quo, which my book objects to, is unintentionally and benignly racist.
6. Your work has received some high-profile endorsements. How do you feel about that?
All writers, toiling away feverishly in front of their computer screens at five in the morning, need affirmation from others, if not just to know that they are not crazy in what they are thinking and writing. These brave endorsements were really appreciated
7. What sort of criticism have you received, if any?
I know that some of my ideological opponents are aware of the book. But they have, for their own reasons, kept silent about it. Probably, and wisely, so as not to draw attention to it. In writing it, like a lawyer writing a brief, I tried to anticipate and rebut every criticism I could expect to receive. (Thus the inordinate length.) Perhaps their silence means that I did a pretty good job of that.
8. Do you plan to write more on the subject?
I have a blog, thereisnodifference.ca, (where one can order the book from Amazon or Chapters), and I intend to post on that.
9. Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
No. To me, there’s no more important Canadian social issue than the tragic situation, past and present, of our first peoples.
10. Anything you’d like to add?
Former Serpent River Reserve Chief Isadore Day called the Indian Act “legislative racism.” Indigenous writer Calvin Helin wrote that, “if apartheid were measured by results rather than intent, we would have it on reserves today.” My book agrees with these distinguished gentlemen. We only differ on the solutions going forward. They want the nation-to-nation fantasy. I’m with Nelson Mandela.
sud.editorial@sunmedia.ca


 

Article by retired Manitoba Judge Brian Giesbrecht on the Canadian connection to the establishment in South Africa of their official, extreme policy of Apartheid, further emphasizing the fundamental shame of the continued existence of Indian reserves in Canada, and the fundamental shame of the official policy of non-Indigenous and Indigenous elites in Canada that Indian reserves, in one form or another, should continue to exist in Canada.

Nelson Mandela and Apartheid
Brian Giesbrecht
June 4,2018

Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights is commemorating Nelson Mandela’s long struggle against the white South African apartheid regime. Mr. Mandela, who died in 2013 at age 95, was imprisoned for 27 years because of his defiance of the regime, and his determination to end apartheid.
That apartheid regime divided people into racial categories, and issued citizens of each category with racial identity cards – in effect, they were status cards. One was either “white, black or coloured”. Each category were entitled to different legal rights, with people in the “white” category having the superior entitlements.
This system was similar to the United States’ “separate but equal” system, with which it co-existed for a number of years. In both systems, for example, blacks could not drink from the same water fountain as could whites. The South African apartheid system also bears many similarities to Canada’s Indigenous apartheid system. Both used status cards that classified people by race, and both granted people of one race entitlements not given to others.
The American “separate but equal” system was finally brought to an end, only after ugly racial confrontations. The South African apartheid system also ended in a similar way, and only after heavy pressure was brought to bear by the international community-which included Canada.
The Canadian Indigenous apartheid system is still here, and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Canadians were among the most vocal opponents of the South African apartheid system. What is not so well known is that the South African apartheid system was based, in large part, on the Canadian Indigenous apartheid system.
Let me explain:
In the 1940s, when white South African politicians were designing a system that would keep people of different races separate, they came to Canada to study our system, with its Indian Act, status cards, and its reserve system. They went back to South Africa and created a system that modelled its “homelands” largely on our reserves, and its status cards largely on the cards Canada hands out to “status Indians”.
The irony of Canadians passionately denouncing South Africa’s apartheid system, while not noticing that we had an apartheid system of our own, was not lost to either South African politicians, or Canadian Indigenous politicians. In fact, during the height of the demonstrations against the South African regime in 1987, Glenn Babb, the South African Foreign Minister, and Peguis Chief Louis Stevenson teamed up to stage a press conference pointing out this hypocrisy. But Canadians didn’t get it.
And by the way, the fact that Canada’s system was – and is – an apartheid system has been very apparent to Indigenous leaders for a long time. For example, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has stated that when he was Minister of Indian Affairs in the 1960s the chiefs demanded an end to what they themselves called an “apartheid” system.
Why did apartheid end in South Africa, while we still have it here?
In a word: money.
If the South African politicians could have used money to bribe people into keeping their status cards, I have no doubt that thy would have done it, and South African apartheid might still be here. However, blacks were the majority there, and the country simply could not afford it. In Canada, where on reserve status Indians make up less than 2% of the Canadian population, status cards carry significant financial benefits, which people do not want to part with. Those status cards – based on race alone – would have been run out of town long ago, were it not for the seductive power of the “free” money they promise.
So status cards and apartheid stay.
Nelson Mandela, along with other great people, such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi, stand for the fundamentally important point that we are all equal.
Let us remember that when we visit this important exhibit.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and senior fellow with Frontier Center for Public Policy, Winnipeg.


 

National Post journalist Barbara Kay’s September 11, 2018 article, The Villain in the Trans Mountain Fiasco-and Other Fiascos Since 2004-is the Supreme Court of Canada, which discusses and endorses my view in There Is No Difference that the diminution of sole Crown sovereignty caused by Supreme Court decisions is extremely harmful to the national welfare.

 

The Villain in the Trans Mountain Fiasco – and Other Fiascos since 2004 – is the Supreme Court of Canada

The Trudeau government was clearly taken by surprise at the Federal Court’s nullifying of their approval of the 1,150-km Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The Trudeau government was clearly taken by surprise at the Federal Court’s nullifying of their approval of the 1,150-km Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Otherwise they would not have signed a deal with Kinder Morgan that explicitly stated any adverse court decisions would not be deemed to constitute a “material adverse effect” that could change the deal’s terms.

No wonder Kinder Morgan shareholders voted virtually unanimously to wash their hands of the project at the speed of summer lightning following the court’s announcement. Now the government is stuck with a project that won’t be going anywhere for some time, if ever.

Central to the objections raised by the court was the failure adequately to consult six First Nations. There are many opinions on what to do next. Some argue for taking the Federal Court decision to the Supreme Court for a ruling. But it was the Supreme Court that got us into this mess in the first place, by introducing the concept of the “honour of the Crown” regarding First Nations in 2004.

In Haida Nation vs. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), the SCC ruled that the B.C. Minister of Forestry could not approve the transfer of a 40-year old Tree Farm License (which prior to this ruling had been done many times) without first consulting with the “Council of the Haida Nation” and, “if appropriate,” accommodating their concerns. “Accommodate” and “if appropriate” are imprecise words which the SCC did not clarify.

Further muddying the waters, the SCC said in their ruling that in consulting and accommodating Indian concerns, honourable Crown conduct “must be understood generously.” What does “generously” mean precisely? (Nobody knows. But Indian bands have tended to use it as a cudgel of economic coercion since then.) The SCC explains the Crown’s generosity is required “if we are to achieve the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown.” Whose meaning is also wide open to interpretation.

In his newly published book, There is no Difference: An Argument for the Abolition of the Indian Reserve System, lawyer Peter Best devotes a chapter to unpacking the consequences of Haida Nation. It makes for fascinating reading.

Before this decision, Best says, it was understood “that aboriginal claims and rights over the land were more than ‘reconciled.’ In fact, Canadians, Indians and non-Indians alike, thought they were, especially in treaty areas, extinguished, plain and simple,” apart from the right to hunt, fish and trap on unoccupied wilderness Crown land, and even then with Crown sovereignty. Haida Nation – and cases decided since then – reversed the meaning of the treaties.

The SCC read in an intent “merely to ‘reconcile’ Indians’ prior sovereign occupancy of the land with the new sovereignty of the Crown.” That is, they were “instruments of power and land-sharing, not instruments of rights extinguishment.”

So it seems we are now in a never-ending power-sharing arrangement, “requiring the constant, expensive, uncertain fine-tuning and adjustment from time to never-ending time of the granted Crown rights with the retained sovereign Indian rights.” This new jurisprudence, Best says, decrees a devolution of Crown sovereignty to Indians – a handing back of previously surrendered power, effectively turning Indian bands into a third order of government.

The key words, “to consult and where appropriate, accommodate the Aboriginal interests…” give Indian bands across the country power over all kinds of economic development – mines, forestry, wind power installations, roads, and of course pipelines.

Following Haida Nation, any band that asserts a proposed off-reserve project affects an Indian interest, actual or projected, the “consultation and accommodation if necessary” process is automatically launched. No evidence has to be produced, no threshold of importance to be met. (“Sacred ground” is always effective – and what ground is not sacred to aboriginals who live on it?).

In most negotiations with conflicting interests, each party has a motive to see the deal done. But “consultation” is not negotiation, and aboriginals often have no particular reason to settle. Best notes that during consultations, there’s a great deal of travel, expense account living, important meetings and pleasant busywork, with most politicians lacking the courage to utter the words “not appropriate” with regard to further “consultation.”

There is also no incentive for aboriginals to settle for anything less than exactly what they want. The Lax Kw’alaams of B.C. turned down a billion dollars in exchange for their support of an industrial project. There was no downside for them. They had the power and knew it. No matter how long they held out, their transfer payments flowed in as usual, and they took no economic risks if the project failed. If one side has nothing to lose and the other side has everything to lose, Best says, “you  don’t have negotiations – you have a shakedown.”

I asked Peter Best how he felt this untenable situation might be resolved. He wrote to me, “Simply put, either the Constitution has to be amended to repeal section 35 or to drastically limit its application, or else, as a more doable alternative, the Supreme Court has to in effect reverse itself on Haida Nation and all its country-damaging legal successors.

“Courts do sometimes reverse themselves when they realize they committed a massive boo boo, like here. But the Trudeau government, in its appeal of the Trans Mountain decision ( which they must do) has to in effect ask the Court to do so.”

I don’t think Best actually believes either of these scenarios will come to pass. Trudeau will always privilege his aboriginal-whispering mystique over the interest of all Canadians. And so, what happened to Kinder Morgan – and has happened to other companies since Haida Nation – will eventually kill all private interest in major infrastructure and mining projects. Aboriginal correctness will slow down our economy. But that won’t affect the salaries of the Supreme Court judges.

 


 


In chapter 40 of There Is No Difference for various reasons I  criticize the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But manuscript length considerations, a need and desire on my part not to bury the reader in excessive specifics, and a simple lack of detailed knowledge of “(indigenous) parental neglect stemming from alcohol abuse”, caused me to greatly underplay this profound reality- a reality essential for any proper understanding and discussion of the entire residential schools issue- a tragic reality, as retired Manitoba Judge Brian Giesbrecht in empathic and scholarly manner writes below, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission either deliberately or grossly negligently omitted to discuss or consider. As set out in chapter 13, the End Times of Indian Cultures in Canada, alcohol was an aspect of the cultural “wreckage”- the “cultural catastrophe”- which mournfully, lamentably but inevitably (the same “worlds colliding” phenomenon was happening the world over at the time)  befell Canada’s indigenous peoples as the result of contact with “modern” European culture. Reader, please patiently work your way through Judge Giesbrecht’s eye-opening and heartbreaking narrative of alcohol-caused tragedy and woe, and then let it inform your judgment and imagination. Let it filter into, and then temper, all the simplistic notions you have been force-fed about such things as “the murdered and missing women”, and the so-called “60’s scoop”, and yes, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s horror comics version of the residential schools issue.

Brian Giesbrecht

The Untold Story of Indigenous Child Neglect and Alcohol Abuse – The Firewater Complex

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 parent 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. (Agents of Their Own Desires: Indian Consumers and the Hudson’s Bay Company 1700-1770, Carlos and Lewis)
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 demoralize 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 drinking the First Nations drinking problem:
“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.” (page 23)
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 – a problem on which they are now planning to spend an additional 1.4 billion taxpayer dollars on in the coming years. The federal government’s new plan is set to commence in 2019.
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.

Brian Giesbrecht, December 2018http://no%20difference%20picture.jpg/

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