Debate Rages Over Native Alcoholism

Some argue a chief’s warning to sober up is welcome recognition of a problem. Others call it unfair stereotyping, writes Glen McGregor.

When Assembly of First Nations Chief Matthew Coon Come warned that native leaders must sober up, he was drawing on a long-standing and persistent stereotype of native alcoholism that never has been proved conclusively.

“Our people smoke too much and drink too much,” said Mr. Coon Come, Canada’s top elected native. “I think it does not give a good signal if a chief and council and anyone who is in Indian leadership is denying that he has alcohol problems.”

To many, Mr. Coon Come’s recent remarks came as a welcome recognition of a health problem endemic to Canada’s aboriginal communities.

But to others, it was an endorsement of an unfair stereotype that natives have tried to shake for years.

Had it been anyone but Mr. Coon Come who said it, they suggest, the remarks would be vilified as bigoted and uninformed.

Indeed, former Newfoundland premier Brian Tobin was publicly castigated last year for saying pretty much the same thing as Mr. Coon Come when he suggested many aboriginal leaders in Labrador are “themselves abusers of alcohol and themselves in need of help.”

His remarks set off a rage of controversy, with Phil Fontaine, Mr. Coon Come’s predecessor at the AFN, denouncing the comments as “a stereotypical image of our people that’s so completely wrong.”

Today, the idea that natives are more susceptible to the mind-bending effects of alcohol remains so tenacious that even some natives believe it.

In her book Firewater Myths, anthropologist Joy Leland reported that many American Indians believe they have a physiological weakness to the effects of alcohol and that alcoholism is “in the blood.”

Ms. Leland concluded that young natives used the heredity explanation as an excuse for their own abuse of alcohol, even though studies show aboriginals do not metabolize alcohol much differently than people of other races.

In Canada, social-scientific data suggest that aboriginal communities are hit harder by substance abuse than non-aboriginal communities. But the data are far from conclusive.

In a major study of existing research, Health Canada admitted it is difficult to measure alcohol and drug use on reserves because of poor response rates and cultural differences that complicate surveys. This makes direct comparison to non-aboriginal populations difficult.

Instead, epidemiologists who study native alcoholism rely on data that show why natives get sick or die.

Injury and poisoning are leading causes of mortality and morbidity in aboriginal communities, both of which are consistent with alcohol abuse.

Few would argue, however, that alcohol is not a problem in Canada’s aboriginal communities.

A 1984 survey of First Nations communities in Manitoba found that 86 per cent rated alcohol as either a “serious problem” or “major problem.”

A study in Ontario the following year found that alcohol consumption was as much as 35 per cent higher in counties that have native reserves than those that don’t.

But other data assembled by Health Canada show that a lower proportion of aboriginals drink daily (two per cent versus three per cent of non-natives) and fewer drink weekly (35 per cent versus 46 per cent) than non-aboriginals. Also, almost twice as many aboriginals count themselves as teetotallers. About 15 per cent of aboriginals say they abstain from drinking, compared with eight per cent of other Canadians.

“There are indications that drinking is more tenacious among young people on reserves,” said Gary Roberts of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

“But there’s not a lot of good information.”

He says figures show that aboriginal youth are between twice and six times as likely to have alcohol problems as non-natives of the same age.

Mr. Roberts says another test of drinking problems, the rate of fetal alcohol syndrome, has also been tested in aboriginal communities, but it is difficult to compare to non-native rates because of a lack of data.

The perception of high rates of native alcoholism is partly grounded in reality, he says, but has been embellished by non-aboriginals who have limited exposure to reserves.

Non-natives are likely to form their opinion on native drinking from the people they encounter on city streets, he said.

“It comes from people’s perceptions, noticing that particularly off reserves in Western Canada you will find individuals of aboriginal descent living on the street.’

Off-reserve natives are believed to have a much higher rate of alcohol and drug dependency, but again, there is little reliable information to back up this theory. Data collection in urban centres has been even less rigorous than on the reserves.

Mr. Roberts said there is nothing but anecdotal evidence to support Mr. Coon Come’s assertion that there is an alcohol problem among the aboriginal political leadership.

“But if it does occur, it is going to limit their effectiveness to become active on the alcohol-abuse problems in their communities,” he said.