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Our Poor Ruined Babies’: Failed Fantasies of Home, Persistent Anxieties of Indigeneity, and the Rise of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Canada

What happens when an adopted child does not fit into the fantasy frame of an adoptive family? Scholars and policy makers began posing this question in Canada in the late 1980s and early 1990s as adoptive placements of Indigenous children from the infamous “Sixties Scoop” era began to break down at rates that far exceeded any other demographic configurations. This phenomenon has largely been (mis)understood through reductive theories of cultural difference and race that reify historical conditions of colonization as bio-social conditions of Indigeneity itself. This paper will examine how adoption breakdowns of Indigenous children eventually became understood, and explainable, by the emergence of the discourse of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a neurodevelopmental condition caused by exposure to alcohol while in utero. ‘Discovered’ by paediatricians in the 1970s during a period of growing awareness of birth defects, FASD quickly resonated with an engrained imagery of dysfunctional Indigenous communities and cohered around a cadre of adoptive parents who sought to retroactively explain their failed domestic projects via racial notions of congenital disease and bio-social inheritances. Ethnographically examining how the figure of an already damaged child came to suture the failed fantasy frames of ‘family’ for adoptive parents allows us insight into how and why in Canada today a majority of diagnoses of FASD are attributed to Indigenous children. That these children are considered to be ‘ruined’ offers further insight into a broader political fantasy frame in which Indigenous life is relegated as historically damaged and, thus, denied political futurity. 

 Les Sabiston is Métis from Selkirk, Manitoba, which is also known in Cree as Aswahonanihk (Place where you cross the river). He is an assistant professor of Anthropology at McGill University, teaching at the discipline’s juncture with Indigenous Studies.

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  • Mcgill University

    Leslie Sabiston
    Assistant Professor


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