Battling with FASD

When the bowl of smoldering sweetgrass was passed to the Ojibwe elder, he took off his baseball cap and rings, and caressed the smoke over himself. Starting with his head, he brushed it over his eyes, ears, mouth, chest and legs. Each person in the circle cleansed themselves this way; each person’s ritual was somewhat different. Some inhaled the smoke; some wafted it under their armpits. The accompanying singing and drumming drowned out the background hum of the lights, and made one forget that we were in a stark, grey gymnasium.

This First Nations smudging ritual, a traditional form of purification, was a significant way for the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health to start their workshop on FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), hosted at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre in Hintonburg on Saturday. The elder, William Linklater, spoke about the need to wash away the residual negativity left by colonization and residential schools which had led many to neglect their spirituality and turn to alcohol.

The 30 people in the room were a mixture of staff, pregnant women and nursing students. One white lady present had adopted 3 Aboriginal orphans, one of whom has FASD.

FASD, whilst not an Aboriginal problem per se, does seem to be more prevalent amongst the First Nations community. The exposure of the fetus to alcohol during pregnancy is considered to be one of the leading causes of mental and developmental disabilities. FASD is largely an invisible disability, since most sufferers do not exhibit physical characteristics. Their symptoms may be more generic such as poor memory or hyperactivity.

Wabano coordinator, Cindy Peltier, kneaded bread with her small, powerful hands in the centre’s kitchen as she spoke about the organization’s aims. It encourages women to talk more openly and to combat the stigma associated with FASD. She explained how FASD is misinterpreted as anti-social behavior by police, and “if police are better-educated, then they’d treat offenders differently”. In August, the Canadian Bar Association submitted a resolution to address this issue.

Mike Wallin, at 42, has battled with FASD for decades. Despite his small stature, Mike is fully functioning and candid about his condition. His life has not been easy: he could not walk till age 3; he was called names at school; his teachers did not recognize a condition that was unheard of at the time. He recounted how his teacher announced students’ test scores in descending order, with him inevitably always in last place.

Mike flashed a brace-filled, triumphant smile when he told of how, after years of foster homes and social assistance, he now works at Tim Hortons. One small victory over FASD.