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It is uncomfortable to look back and recall that up to 1971, when section 94 of the Indian Act was repealed as a result of the Regina v. Drybones case, Indigenous citizens of Canada were vulnerable to arrest and detention if they were found intoxicated, or in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