Anishinaabe Nation asserts sovereignty and passes law on alcohol use

May 27, 2021

Earlier in May, a traditional Anishinaabe law on alcohol possession came into effect in Grassy Narrows in northwestern Ontario – a move that demonstrated a clear departure from provisions under the federal Indian Act that prohibit alcohol on First Nations across Canada.

Accordingly, this action also asserts the inherent jurisdiction and sovereignty of Grassy Narrows, a Treaty 3 First Nation located near Kenora, and is aimed to help the community address the social problems caused by alcohol, according to Chief Randy Fobister.

“Before settlers came to this part of the world, the land, the country, there was a justice system already in place and laws that were practised, and used and had consequences. We need to go back to those roots and give them a chance to flourish,” said Chief Fobister.

The new law, named Alcohol Inagonigaawin, involves both the mainstream and traditional justice process to apply to individuals who bring excessive amounts of alcohol onto the First Nation, and will be enforced by the Treaty Three Police Service (T3PS).

The law was drafted by the Grassy Narrows leadership, and unanimously supported by a council of elders.

“This may be the first time an inherent Anishinaabe law is enforced by a police service in Ontario,” said T3PS Chief Kai Liu.

Furthermore, several leaders and lawyers have expressed hope that the law will serve as a model for other First Nations in the region, to “revitalize traditional laws and address the challenges of enforcing band council bylaws created under the Indian Act.”

“Excessive drinking is a grave threat during the pandemic. Drinking parties are the primary cause for the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” said Chief Fobister in a news release.

Specifically, under the Alcohol Inagonigaawin, alcohol possession is limited to one of these amounts:

  • 750 millilitres of wine.
  • A 12-pack of beer.
  • 26 ounces of liquor spirits.

Individuals determined to possess excessive amounts of alcohol could be charged by T3PS officers and given two options. According to Chief Fobister, the preferred option would be for the individual to go before a community justice panel, and a circle would be held before it issues a ruling. “It could be a fine, writing an apology letter, maybe having to do research on the negative aspects of alcohol and why it brought them there,” he said. “Those are the next steps we need to fine tune.”

The second option involves treating the charge like a criminal offence, with a private prosecutor in the Ontario Court of Justice, before a justice of the peace who recognizes traditional Anishinaabe law.

According to Sara Mainville, a partner at Otlhuis Kleer Townshend (OKT) Law, and a member and former chief of Couchiching First Nation, Alcohol Inagonigaawin is significant because Grassy Narrows created the law based on its own inherent sovereignty, as opposed to the Indian Act. Moreover, it laid the groundwork to have it recognized by a police service and the court system, and put the necessary resources in place to enforce it.