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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Booze battles 

BY Will Nicholls May 22, 2023

Waskaganish held a referendum April 30 to decide whether to limit quantities of alcohol for personal use and perhaps allow the sale of alcohol at certain events. As we went to press before that date, I don’t have the results as I write.

However, it certainly is an interesting question and one that has plagued people for ages.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was created in 1873 to advocate for a ban on sales and use of alcohol. They were a driving force for Prohibition in the United States, which ran from 1920 to 1933. 

Nonetheless, the roaring 20s showed that many people were willing to become criminals by illegally selling, transporting, making or drinking alcohol. Bootlegging was rampant and helped to create an organized crime establishment that was willing to meet the demand. Initially, Mexico and Canada were sources and smugglers had a field day, but Americans started to make their own rather than take a chance on the US Coast Guard stopping a shipment.

The rampant disregard for the law demonstrated that prohibition was impossible to enforce, and it was repealed in December 1933.

The Cree and other First Nations across Canada had their own experiences with prohibition. The Indian Act made it illegal for status Indians to buy or be served alcohol. In the 1950s, the RCMP would come into the Cree communities to count how many packages of yeast people possessed because it could be used to brew beer. If they discovered that you had more than an allowable amount you were shipped down south if you couldn’t pay the $10 fine.  

The prohibition statutes in the Indian Act were still being enforced into the early 1980s. At that time Crees drank mostly beer. When the home-brewed hootch was more or less freely shared, it wasn’t leading to hard feelings and fights. But then we started to switch to the “hard stuff” as it was easier to smuggle, and serious social problems soon followed.

People were not used to distilled spirits with high alcohol content and would pass out as they were drinking it as if it was beer. Police would stop vehicles at random and search them for alcohol. One way they tried to avoid arrest was to hide a bottle inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread. 

Personally, I was caught and charged for three bottles that the police found hidden under the spare tire in my trunk. I decided to fight the charge and went to court. 

The prosecutor said there were cases going to the Supreme Court of Canada and we should wait for the ruling there. I argued that I wasn’t fighting the charges based on the Charter of Rights, but rather that under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement Cree communities were not reserves under the Indian Act. 

I ended up winning the court case. But when I arrived to pick up my alcohol, I discovered that someone had set the police station on fire the night before – my alcohol probably contributed to the damage. That’s life for you. 

Waskaganish residents will have had a difficult decision to make April 30 to determine how they deal with alcohol on a community basis. As Prohibition in the US and our own history shows, people will continue to consume alcohol whatever the law says. So, it wasn’t an easy choice for Waskaganish members, and we hope the community will be wise in the way they approach the issue, whatever the decision they made.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.