Canada’s Aboriginal People, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & the Criminal Justice System

Published 17/12/2008
Type Article
Author(s) Denis C. Bracken
Corresponding Authors Denis C. Bracken, Faculty of Social Work, University of Manitoba, Canada

This paper is an examination of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and the related conditions of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), fetal alcohol effects (FAE), and alcoholrelated birth effects (ARBE)3 as they pertain to the Canadian criminal justice system, and specifically to Aboriginal Canadian offenders. FASD is considered a problem for the criminal justice system in general, but the over-representation of Aboriginal persons at various levels of the Canadian system, in particular in the Prairie Provinces of Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) places an additional factor into any consideration of the issue. This is further complicated by the fact that, as suggested by Tait (2003), it is important to recognize the ‘secondary disabilities’ identified as part of FASD in the context of those social characteristics that are the result of colonialism and related policies of discrimination, attempts at forced assimilation and economic marginalization experienced by Aboriginal people. Thus the high incarceration rate of Aboriginal people which many see as an outcome of colonialism, combined with common stereotypes of the “drunken Indian” may lead one to assume that FASD is a major contributing factor to Aboriginal peoples’ over-involvement with the criminal justice system. What is really the issue at hand is the relationship between FASD and incarceration of  Aboriginal people, not as an indicator of the connection between alcoholism addiction and Aboriginals, but rather as a sign that incarceration of Aboriginal people is connected to discrimination, and broader health and social development issues (the outcome of colonialism) and which may also include FASD. The problems of identifying offenders with FASD in the criminal justice system (and in particular the prison system), presents as disproportionately problem of Aboriginal people. This must be taken into account when developing policies and practices around FASD and criminal justice.