by Joan Champ
NOTE: The term “Indian” is used in this article, as that was the word most commonly used to refer to Indigenous peoples during the period under discussion.
Indigenous people were not allowed to drink in Saskatchewan bars until 1960 – the same year they were granted the right to vote. The push for Indians’ right to purchase and consume alcohol began right after the Second World War.
Several thousand Indigenous men and women fought in the Canadian armed services during both world wars. When they returned from overseas, however, provisions from the out-dated Indian Act prohibited them from voting, holding pow-wows, and drinking alcoholic beverages. They were not even allowed to drink with their former comrades-in-arms at the Legion halls across Canada. In the words of historian James H. Gray, “there was something patently ridiculous in a system which permitted an Indian to risk his life for his country but denied him access to a bottle of beer.”
From 1946 to 1948, a Special Committee of the Senate and House of Commons studied the Indian Act and heard many opinions on the issue of Indian alcohol restrictions in Canada. Joseph Dreaver, president of the Saskatchewan Indian Association and a veteran of both world wars, told the committee that Aboriginal soldiers drank overseas at in military canteens along with their non-Aboriginal comrades, and he “found no difference between the Indian and the white man.”
In 1951, on the recommendations of the Special Committee, the federal government made a number of changes to the Indian Act, including an amendment which permitted Indians to consume intoxicating beverages in licensed premises, providing that their provincial government allowed it. The Saskatchewan government, however, was not prepared to act. Premier Tommy Douglas, a non-drinker himself, was not in favour of drinking whether by whites or Indians. He knew there was a great deal of opposition throughout the province. There was even a divergence of opinion about drinking among Saskatchewan’s Indian leaders. “Local chiefs knew only too well the disastrous effects alcohol had had in the past,” author F. Laurie Barron explains, “and understandably they were not anxious to legitimize or broaden its use.”
Nothing was done until 1960 when Douglas set aside his own reservations on the matter. On July 27, 1960, with the issue of a federal proclamation, Saskatchewan Indians were given the right to purchase and consume alcohol. In the latter instance, they were not allowed to drink liquor on a reserve unless that reserve had been declared “wet” as the result of a referendum.
Hotel owners in Saskatchewan were solidly opposed to opening their drinking establishments to Indians. In May of 1961, Premier Douglas addressed the 30th annual convention of the provincial hotels association. He urged hotelmen to be patient in dealing with problems created by allowing Indians into licensed beverage rooms. “We are having this trouble,’ Douglas said, “because we are reaping the harvest of 50 years or more of making the Indian a second-class citizen. We are going to have to make up our minds whether we are going to keep the Indian bottled up in a sort of Canadian apartheid or whether we are going to let him become a good citizen.” He cautioned, however, that while the Indian had been given equal rights, he had no more right to break the law than the white man. “If he is drunk or causing a disturbance then he should be put out of the premises the same as a white man should. But he should not be put out just because he is an Indian.”
Despite Douglas’ cautionary words, however, incidents of discrimination against Indians in Saskatchewan hotels began to occur. In March of 1968, a member of the Prince Albert Indian and Metis Service Council charged that a group seven had been refused service in the beverage room of the Broadway Hotel on 15th Street East. When they protested to the hotel management, they were told they were sitting in the wrong place and were asked to move. The hotel manager told the Prince Albert Daily Herald that his hotel did not discriminate, pointing out that two of his employees were of native ancestry. Nevertheless, his staff were instructed to ask “untidy” people, whether Indian or white, to sit in one section of the beverage room. In other words, they were segregated.
In January of 1971, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians accused four Saskatchewan hotels of discrimination under the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. The pub in the Broadway Hotel in Prince Albert was again alleged to have refused service to Indians. The hotel manager told the Herald that “the hotel does not have a policy of requiring people to sit in one or the other areas of the beverage room premises because they are Indian or Negro or any other nationality or race.” Nevertheless, the hotel still had an established policy of “separating clean and unclean persons.” FSI Chief David Ahenakew stated that while drinking might not be the most enlightened social endeavor, it was absolutely essential, “especially in such a milieu where defences are often lower and the cutting edge of racial tension more keenly felt,” that scrupulous attention should be paid to the basic civil rights of all Canadian citizens.
This article is adapted from a post in my blog, Railway and Main: Small-Town Saskatchewan Hotels.