Sunday, 19 June 2011

Indians in Bars: Saskatchewan Liquor Laws after the Second World War

First Nations people were not allowed to drink in Saskatchewan bars until 1960 -- the same year they were granted the right to vote. This is the sixth in a series of posts on provincial liquor laws and their impact on stall-town hotels.  NOTE:  The term  "Indian" is used in this post, as that was the word most commonly used to refer to First Nations peoples during the period under discussion.

Several thousand First Nations men and women fought in the Canadian armed services during the Second World War. 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 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.” ( James H. Gray, Bacchanalia Revisited’ Western Canada’s Boozy Skid to Social Disaster  [Saskatoon:  Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982], p. 117)

John Tootoosis. Image source
From 1946 to 1948, a Special Committee of the Senate and House of Commons studied the Indian Act and heard a large number of opinions on the issue of Indian alcohol restrictions in Canada. In May 1947 John B. Tootoosis, president of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians, told the hearings that there might be some problems, but, he maintained, “the Indian would learn to handle whiskey.” Joseph Dreaver, former president of the Saskatchewan Indian Association, claimed that “the sooner the Indian has same privilege as the white man it will be better for him.” Dreaver, a veteran of both world wars, told the committee that Aboriginal soldiers drank at in military canteens along with their non-Aboriginal comrades, and he “found no difference between the Indian and the white man.” (Canada. Parliament. Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons Appointed to Examine and Consider the Indian Act, 9 May 1947,vol. 4, p. 1071)  

Joseph Dreaver (2nd from right), c. 1944. Image source
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. The catch was that their provincial government had to take the initiative and petition the governor general-in-council. The Saskatchewan government 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 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,” F. Laurie Barron explains, “and understandably they were not anxious to legitimize or broaden its use.” Hotel owners in Saskatchewan were solidly opposed to opening their drinking establishments to Indians. According to Barron, they were afraid that drunken Indians might cause violence and drive away business. (F. Laurie Barron, Walking in Indian Moccasins: The Native Policies of Tommy Douglas and the CCF [Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997], p. 110)

Nothing was done until 1960 when Douglas set aside his own reservations on the matter and petitioned the federal government to issue the necessary proclamation. The province’s Indians were given the right to buy and consume alcohol the same year they were granted the right to vote. The following year, the Hotel Association of Saskatchewan proposed that Indian drinking continue to be restricted until an education program could be implemented to teach Indians about their rights and responsibilities involved in alcohol consumption. 

John Tootoosis, president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, informed the hotelmen that many educational meetings had been held on reserves throughout the province during 1960 that were designed to help Indians understand the complexities of the new regulations. Bill Wuttunee, a Regina lawyer and member of the provincial committee on minority groups, stated that while most Saskatchewan hotelmen were co-operating well, a few had “completely disregarded the civil liberties of Indians.” Wuttunee believed that Indians, given time, would be able to handle liquor as well as anyone else. CLICK HERE to read "Hotelmen’s Proposals Get Criticism from Some Groups,” Regina Leader-Post, May 17, 1961, p. 3.

Tommy Douglas, 1945. Image source
The following year, 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.” CLICK HERE to read “Douglas Asks Patience in Dealing with Indians,” Regina Leader-Post, May 18, 1961, p. 42.

Racism in Hotels

It was not long before incidents of discrimination against Indians in Saskatchewan hotels began to occur. In May of 1963, for example, three First Nations people were charged with causing a disturbance when they were refused beer in the “white” half of the beverage room at the Edenwold hotel. Alfred G. Pfenning, the hotel owner, had introduced a “Saturday night rule” by which Indians were restricted to half of the planter-divided beverage room on Saturday nights. Two of the three people were fined $1, and charges were dropped against the third person. Provincial Magistrate L. F. Bence said the rule was unfair and bound to “rile” a normal person. The Criminal Code of Canada had sufficient provisions for dealing with rowdyism, he said. But to have restrictions based on a person’s race amounted to provocation. CLICK HERE to read “Segregation in Parlor Termed a Provocation,” Regina Leader-Post, May 24, 1963, p. 2.

Image source
In 1971, four Saskatchewan hotels were accused by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians of discrimination under the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. Pubs in the Broadway Hotel at Leask, the King George Hotel at Kamsack, the Baldwin Hotel in Saskatoon, and a hotel in Prince Albert were alleged to have refused service to Indians. In the case of the Leask hotel, the beer parlor was divided into two areas, one with rugs and the other without. Indians patrons were not served if they sat in the portion with the rugs. An Indian woman said that she tried to sit in the white area three times and was told to move each time. At the Kamsack hotel, an Indian complainant said he walked into the white section of the bar and was told “we don’t serve your kind in here … you stink up the place.” 

In his letter demanding an investigation, 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. CLICK HERE to read "Beer halls may face charges,” Regina Leader-Post, Jan. 6, 1971, p. 2.

Senator John B. Tootosis and David Ahenakew, c. 1975. Image source

Troubling Legacy

By the end of the 1970s, alcohol abuse was one of the biggest problems facing the First Nations peoples of Saskatchewan. CLICK HERE to read more. In 1978, Jim Sinclair, president of the Association of Metis and non-status Indians of Saskatchewan, stated that almost half of the natives in the province were “sick with booze,” and had severe alcohol problems. CLICK HERE to read “Alcohol Treatment Urged for Natives,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, July 20, 1978, p. 28. Things were so bad that Senator John Tootoosis, chairman of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians' senate, stated in 1981 that he felt the reason the Canadian government had permitted Indians to drink in bars and buy alcohol was to allow them to kill themselves off. CLICK HERE to read "Fight for Rights, Indians Told," Regina Leader-Post, November 24, 1981, p. 4.

© Joan Champ 2011


  1. Thank you for your work Joan. I love small town hotels/bars as well. So much Saskatchewan history is in these places. My grandfather was Joe Dreaver, whom you refer to in this article. Years after he past, someone pointed out "his seat and table" in the Leask Hotel bar. I would sit across the room from his table and imagine him sitting there, having a sip. Unfortunately the Leask Hotel burnt down a couple years ago.

    1. Thank you, Anthony, for your comment and for your interest in my hotel blog. Your grandfather, Joseph Dreaver was a great leader. You must be very proud of him. I also wrote a blog post about the Leask Hotel at the time it burned down. Here is the link:

  2. Now Shellbrook Hotel is where I go for a sip. My Grandpa Joe and Grannie would go to Shellbrook for her July 1 birthday. I continue the practise each year