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Drunk Indian myth surfaces

Lodge guide tells tourists aboriginals can't tolerate alcohol

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The drunken Indian stereotype was revived, then debunked, in the space of a few online hours Wednesday after a remote northern Manitoba fishing lodge blundered into one of Canada's most tenacious myths.

Local and national aboriginal leaders, many of whom weighed in online, say it's a myth perpetuated even by the well-meaning, one based on no science that infantilizes indigenous people.

"The tone of this program guide is not only paternalistic but disrespectful of the very people whose generosity and gifts of territory make this business possible," said University of Manitoba native studies Prof. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair. "One hopes that the owners of this lodge read up on some history and science instead of relying on outdated and ignorant falsehoods to forge relationships with their employees and neighbours."

The guide in question is a 37-page list of travel tips for American hunters and fishermen flying in to the Laurie River Lodge, located halfway between Lynn Lake and the Pukatawagan First Nation. In the guide, owner Brent Fleck -- who apologized late Wednesday for his comments -- asks visitors not to offer alcohol to his Cree guides, many of whom are from Pukatawagan. "They are wonderful people and fun to fish with, however, like all Native North Americans, they have a basic intolerance for alcohol. Please do not give my guides alcohol under any circumstances."

The guide has been online for years, but its discovery Wednesday sparked widespread criticism on social media, Even Juno-nominated musician Desiree Dorion weighed in: "These stereotypes are getting so f--ing old already."

'The tone of this program guide is not only paternalistic, but disrespectful of the very people whose generosity and gifts of territory make this business possible'

-- University of Manitoba native studies Prof. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair

"People are pretty irate about it," said Robert Sinclair, who runs Pukatawagan's radio station. "It's plain ignorance."

Some Pukatawagan residents called for a human rights complaint to be filed against the lodge, and Pukatawagan Chief Arlen Dumas issued a letter Wednesday calling on the Flecks to remove the offending paragraph from the lodge's website and offer a public apology to indigenous people and a personal one to their Cree guides.

"The comments are racist and negative stereotypes, which only serve to promote or incite hatred against our people," wrote Dumas. "There is no scientific basis for your claim that Cree people have an intolerance for alcohol, nor is there any basis for alleging that our Cree people would drink while working or that they pose a risk to the public."

Dumas also noted lodge visitors use his band's traditional territory for hunting and fishing, and the lodge is located on his grandfather's trapline.

Late Wednesday, after the lodge's Facebook page was hijacked by critics, Fleck apologized.

"It was a total mistake and should not have been in there. It's an old trip-planning guide that I've used for like 15 years, and I had no idea that that was even in there," Fleck said. "I've issued an apology to the chief down in Pukatawagan and to the natives that work for me and... it's certainly not our opinion and not something that we want to forward in any way shape or form."

Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said northern hunting lodges represent a key tourism industry in the province, a way to present the best of northern culture, making Fleck's revival of the myth especially troubling.

"It's awfully hurtful," said Robinson. "It's a stereotype that's existed for so long and now we're transferring it on to the next generation."

In a widely read blog post written last fall, Montreal lawyer Chelsea Vowel said aboriginal peoples' struggle with alcohol is not genetic destiny. Research suggests there is no difference in the way indigenous North Americans metabolize alcohol. Research by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation shows deaths due to alcohol are twice as high among aboriginal people, but longitudinal health studies show far more aboriginal people abstain from drinking than non-aboriginal people.

"The idea that indigenous peoples are helpless to resist the lure of alcohol, that we are genetically weak and more susceptible to it, plays into the notion of our supposed inferiority," wrote Vowel, who is Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alta.

Michael Kannon, a Winnipegger and Idle No More activist, said he often hears the same kind of subtle racism disguised by a benevolent tone. Kannon grew up in Tennessee, a product of the 1960s scoop that saw aboriginal kids adopted into white families, often outside the country.

He said the same racist descriptions were used on blacks. "I saw (the) same stereotypes, verbatim," said Kannon. "It's a 'those people' phrase. Stick in indigenous, black, Muslim, whatever."

Kannon said non-aboriginals should learn more about the history and culture of aboriginals.


-- with a file from The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2014 A5


Updated on Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 6:23 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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