Emergence and Prohibition of Alcohol as a Trade Commodity on the Plains

The fur trade during the 18th century was characterized by competition and conflicts for resources and trade routes. With an increasing number of traders from both the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the Montreal-based Northwest Company, as well as Indigenous groups partaking in the fur trade, the market quickly became saturated. The number of posts outweighed the local production of fur. In these circumstances, alcohol was used as an inducement to participate, as an item of exchange, and as an incentive towards competitive access. At the height of competition, gifts involving alcohol and tobacco grew more popular. The Jesuits were opposed to the trade of alcohol, and documented some of the effects it had on Indigenous populations. Jesuits reported problems such as assaults, murders, rape, marriage breakdown and food deprivation. It is important to remember, however, the Jesuits were a missionary group that preoccupied themselves with the Christianization of Indigenous peoples; creating an image where Indigenous peoples were viewed as socially 'troubled' justified to colonists that Indigenous peoples were in need of 'saving.' Therefore, we must think critically about what kind of message Jesuits were trying to convey in their reports, and what sort of biases they had. ------------- The HBC recognized that the free flow of alcohol had engendered social problems, especially during the decades of intense competition between the three main trading companies. George Simpson, the governor of the HBC's Northern Department, ended the trade of alcohol for furs in 1822, and the amount of alcohol given as gifts was reduced by half in that year. Simpson believed that the trade alcohol could not be ended all at once, but would be tapered off throughout the 1820s. The company thus enacted a ban on liquor trade in the Athabasca, Mackenzie, and English River districts, eliminating the flow of alcohol to fur producers and company employees past Cumberland House. The flow of alcohol to the interior was to be reduced by 50%. In isolated areas, a complete ban was imposed. This alcohol ban represented a method of control over Indigenous people by the HBC. At a time when game was depleting, beavers and muskrat were getting rare, when the role of Indigenous traders was diminishing, and the HBC thought that their presence was a "hindrance" to the economic development of the territory. In addition, although liquor bans were enacted to curb the "liquor wreaking havoc", it is likely that the aggressive beahviour of European traders and a preoccupation with profits greatly contributed to the social changes at the time. Many historical accounts of this period depict Indigenous traders as increasingly violent due to exposure and abuse of alcohol, but the sources fail to recognize other reasons which might explain the higher levels of violence such as: dwindling autonomy, increasingly scare resources, encroachment on their land, and an introduction of new trading methods focused on wealth accumulation.

The introduction of alcohol as an incentive for hunting had, in many cases, a negative impact on the Indigenous communities where alcohol became a primary form of payment. In addition, the increased alcohol flow impacted the spread of venereal disease introduced by European traders and their sexual partner. For HBC employees, sexual relations with Indigenous women were prohibited by a company decree, though such liaisons were “winked at,” according to Chief Factor Andrew Graham. However, the company decree was ignored by many of the HBC traders as surveillance and of traders was minimal at non-major forts.There is sparse information concerning the impact of venereal disease on Indigenous women, as company records did not report on this matter.------------ The fur trade dramatically impacted traditional diets, livelihoods and social norms. For many Indigenous traders, more time was spent meeting traders at posts, often located at the mouths of rivers, which modified the habits of many families, and caused displacement for a number of them. New forms of social organizations emerged, such as captains and middlemen working at specific posts ensuring trade operations ran smoothly. These social changes, coupled with the effects of the assimilation policies set forth by the government at the time, alcohol abuse problems arose due to unmet social needs. For many it represented a way to escape from reality. Long-term, the effects of alcohol were a result of cultural and land dislocation, a violent educational and child welfare system, restrictive federal policies, physical and sexual violence that had rarely manifested itself in Indigenous societies prior to colonization, -------------The subsequent prohibition of alcohol in various areas of the HBC territory serves as an example of European policies imposed on Indigenous populations, often under the premise that said policy was to "save them". The HBC liquor prohibition also impacted trade further in the North-West, hindering economic ventures with declines in trade returns for company servants. It also encouraged the growth of illegal alcohol coming in from the United States. This HBC policy was also a precursor to the 1894 federal policy which stated that constables were given the power to arrest and detain any Aboriginal person found gambling or in possession of liquor. This policy as well as the HBC's liquor prohibition stem from Eurocentric views that position Indigenous people as morally inferior to non-Indigenous people, and more easily prone to succumb to temptations from moral vices such as gambling and alcohol abuse. These types of policies also fail to address the real social problems that the government and European trade created in the first place. Policies such as these put the blame on Indigenous peoples for 'moral corruption' but wilfully ignored the same behaviour in settlers. Please see entry entitled: Indian Act Amendment - Ability to Arrest for Gambling or Intoxication for further information.
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Alcohol becomes integral in securing trade relationships. HBC enacts alcohol prohibition policy.