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A look back: Our failure to challenge discriminatory statutes

December 1, 2019
By Ian Parsons


It is uncomfortable to look back and recall that up to 1971, when section 94 of the Indian Act was repealed as a result of the Regina v. Drybones case, Indigenous citizens of Canada were vulnerable to arrest and detention if they were found intoxicated, or in possession of liquor, either on or off a reserve.

It was a bizarre approach to socializing a specific group of Canadians in the act of consuming alcohol and is illustrative of how the Canadian government treated Indigenous people as children — and not as distinct culture groups. Banning them from the use of alcohol, something which literally “lubricated” white society was unrealistic and simplistic.

In attempts to avoid detection and prosecution, some would rapidly consume the entire contents of the bottle in the hope of not being found in possession of liquor. Double jeopardy was in play when the consumer began to exhibit symptoms of intoxication. This policy of interdiction was in place for decades and clearly contributed to alcohol abuse.

As young law enforcement officers emerged from training centres in the decades preceding 1971, a policy of vigorous enforcement of all aspects of the Indian Act was in play. Even some of the private residences of Indigenous peoples, where consumption of alcohol was suspected, would be entered without a search warrant, liquor seized from the premises and often the occupants were arrested. In many cases both parents would be taken into custody and the children apprehended by social services, creating trauma to both parents and children.


Detachment cell blocks adjacent to Indigenous communities would be often occupied by Indigenous prisoners. I can recall processing 2,500 prisoners, mostly Indigenous, annually at one busy detachment in a tiny, white community in Alberta.

In retrospect, I cannot cite a single instance where our supervisors, or we as young police officers, questioned this discriminatory policy. None questioned the fact that it did not seem reasonable for a specific ethnic group in Canada be subjected to laws that others were not.

Looking back, it seems astonishing that, to my knowledge, not one right-thinking person ever raised a concern during this era. But, with the prevailing mindset of the time, perhaps it is not that surprising. Failing to carry out one’s duties under the Indian Act of the time could have led to stern disciplinary measures. This all leads me back to some important questions I shall pose here.

How intensely is the question of ethical behaviour discussed in police training at all levels?

How does a police force cope with laws and statutes that might be discriminatory?

How much responsibility rests with individuals?

Does society expect law enforcers to be automatons, never questioning the scope of their duties?

Should our police carry out discriminatory laws even though they know they are wrong?

These are questions that must be constantly examined in police training centres everywhere.


Insp. Ian Parsons (retired) is based in Courtenay, B.C. and is the author of No Easy Ride.

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1 Comment » for A look back: Our failure to challenge discriminatory statutes
  1. Renée Francoeur says:

    Thank you to the reader who submitted this letter to the editor:

    The following is a comment directed to the Back of the Book op-ed section from the December 2019 issue, titled A look back: Our failure to challenge discriminatory statutes.

    The trouble with revisiting history through a modern-day lens is that we fail to see our achievements through our obvious flaws. It also implies that we occupy the peak of the moral high ground. This myopic viewpoint obscures the inevitable truth that we too will be judged by a future society of shifting values.

    Mr. Parsons attempts to impose modern day morality on the police of 50 years ago. Not only is this disingenuous but also, it’s an inept analysis of the times. I also use the term “morality” loosely as in my opinion, we are lacking them in our modern society.

    Parsons scolds police officers of half a century ago for enforcing “discriminatory statutes,” but gives a free pass to the voters, the legislators that wrote the law, the prosecutors that prosecuted the cases, and the judges that convicted the offenders of their crimes. What a strange standard it is that he chooses to impose on the police and no one else. Do we hold Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister at the time, to the same standard that Mr. Parsons would expect of the police? Of course not. Much like Trudeau’s son’s use of blackface, the standards of discrimination have changed over time.

    It could be said that a parallel exists today with the implementation of Bill C 75. Legislators have thought it appropriate to impose a two-tiered system of justice whereas Aboriginals specifically and “others over represented in the criminal justice system” are treated differently with respect to bail and sentencing. Would Mr. Parsons have police officers today take the ethical position that race-based legislation is inherently wrong and refuse to enforce it? His comments suggest that he would, although I don’t think he’d agree with that position.

    Perhaps 50 years in the future, our grandchildren will reflect on our society and wonder how, with one hand we could vehemently denounce racism in all its forms, while on the other hand, write textbook racist legislation, without a single ounce of irony.

    Submitted respectfully,
    Rob Edwards

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