The myth of alcoholism among native people

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By Mike Anthony

It’s about 11:30 on a Thursday night at an Annex-neighbourhood bar.  Actually, it’s more of a dive.  Most of the regulars have filed in to spend a few hours breathing the smoky air and drowning pitchers of stale beer.  It’s a typical place where people spend night after night talking with acquaintances and shooting pool.

This particular establishment serves a diverse group.  People of all racial and ethnic origins and classes converge here.  You can meet people who have come to live in Canada from as far as Siberia.  If you’re lucky, you may meet an actor working on a national television series.  Local native Canadians frequent the joint too, and some people think they shouldn’t.

It’s now about midnight and Tim and I are sitting at a table in the front having another pitcher when a scuffle breaks out back by the pool tables.  One of the people in the scuffle happens to be native.  Tim (not his real name) turns around to look then looks back at me.  “You know, natives don’t have the enzymes to break down alcohol,” he explains to me, using his hands to cradle the air in front of his liver.  He says this to me in a sensitive and caring way as if to suggest, “It’s the sad truth.  They can’t help it.”

Tim says he learned this “truth” in his second-year university biochemistry class more than 15 years ago.  “It wasn’t really part of the class material.  It was more of an off-the-cuff remark made by the professor,” Tim said.  But the comment stuck with him all these years.  That single, “off-the-cuff” remark shaped how Tim has viewed alcoholism among native people ever since.  He and many other people still believe metabolic differences between native North Americans and white people mean natives get drunk faster.  He and many other people are dead wrong.

This sort of thinking — called biological determinism (using biology to explain behavioural differences between races) — isn’t new.  Historical writer Geoffrey York points out in his book The Dispossessed that even in the early days of fur trading, whites assumed that “Indians must have a defect that made them particularly susceptible” to alcohol.  However, the dubious science to support that notion has been prove wrong.  IT was believed that (take a deep breath) mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2), the enzyme the body uses to breakdown alcohol, was inactive in most native people, as well as most Asians.  That belief has since been debunked.

Dr. Brian O’Dowd is a molecular biologist who works in the department of pharmacology at U of T.  He has 12 years experience in this field.  In 1990, O’Dowd took part in a study for the Addiction Research Foundation comparing the ALDH2 found Asians to the ALDH2 found in native people from Chile and Ontario.  He used DNA samples to categorize both groups as genetically similar.  The study found one of the North or South American natives had the inactive form of the enzyme.  “The native North American Indian has the Caucasian form,” O’Dowd said.  “The ‘Asian’ form doesn’t exist.”

Sarah Gaikezheyongai has always known that.  She’s a registered nurse at Anishnawbe Health centre on Queen St. E.  “[Natives being metabolically different] is an excuse people sometimes use,” she said.  “We appear to have a harder time with alcohol because our story is heard more.” Suggesting alcoholism among native people gets undue attention.

Gaikezheyongai said people have to look at the historical and sociological causes of alcoholism in North American native communities.  When Europeans first came to Canada, the north West Company and later the Hudson’s Bay Company, used alcohol as a cheap and addictive tool to trade furs.

The social problems in the native community leading Natives to drink today are pretty clear: 80 to 90 per cent unemployment on some reserves, substandard living conditions and general poverty.

Enzymes aside, Gaikezheyongai believes native communities have been relegated bottom-rung status in Canada because of alcohol.  She said booze was introduced as a control mechanism rather than a social one.  “We’ve never had any role-modeling on how to use (alcohol) in moderation and for purely social purposes.  It’s always been this crutch for your problems or this huge monster that will come and consume you if you use it,” she said.

Back in the Annex it’s now 2 a.m. and a few drunk people file out like zombies.  I’m still thinking about “the truth.”  I’m sitting in the same spot I sat a year ago when I watched a group of white bikers with perfectly functional enzymes cause trouble with a French Canadian couple last year.  Time and I are both really rocked now and realize that we may be acting like two drunken goons.  But no one is studying the biological tendencies of alcoholism in university students, or motorcycle enthusiasts.

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