Rachel Tambour was seven weeks along before realizing she was pregnant with her son.
She would “whoop it up” on weekends, and had “excessively” consumed alcohol.
On the birth control pill, she never suspected she was pregnant.
“I didn’t know what to do. Should I abort this child, or should I just take my chances?” Tambour said Wednesday at the University of Regina.
When he was diagnosed years later with fetal alcohol effects, Tambour was floored by “the damage that I did to my son,” learning he might never read past a Grade 3 level or obtain a driver’s license.
Tambour, who lives in Yellowknife, told her story at the National Symposium on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
The two-day conference was organized with justice and reconciliation in mind. Two of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action are focused on FASD.
“FASD, and reconciliation itself, really requires a comprehensive approach,” said Michelle Stewart, a justice studies professor who helped organize the event.
FASD is “an epidemic back home, amongst our aboriginal people,” said Tambour. “There’s no education on FASD. It keeps getting pushed under the rug.”
There is also stigma that prevents women from talking about it.
Lisa Lawley has witnessed this in her community of Terrace in northern B.C. — and experienced it firsthand.
Four of Lawley’s six children have alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder.
The possibility of their FASD only occurred to her about 15 years ago.
“I went OK, what was I doing when I was pregnant?” Lawley said. “We were young, we worked in a mine. The weekend we had off, we were out at the lake with our friends and our family, having drinks. So I never thought about that. We played baseball — baseball, connected to alcohol. Curling, connected to alcohol.”
Her children’s diagnoses brought her “devastation, shame and guilt,” said Lawley.
“Service providers have used words like brain damage, alcoholic mothers … There was no hope. At least that is what I felt. There was no support for mothers.”
When people see a drunk pregnant woman, they are quick to judge, Lawley added. They don’t think ‘how can I help?’ or ‘why is she self-medicating?’
She was so frustrated, she decided to speak out.
Along with four other aboriginal women, Lawley has pushed for better FASD supports in Terrace, B.C., where she works at the Kermode Friendship Society.
Now people can get FASD diagnoses in the community, instead of travelling 1,350 kilometres to Vancouver.
But, Lawley and Tambour agreed, there are still issues with government ministries, in terms of adults with FASD having custody of their own children, and people with FASD receiving funding and housing supports they require.
“We hear a lot of stigma, shame and blame,” Tambour said.
Tambour’s son, now 25, is seeking a pardon for an assault conviction he received at age 18.
The symposium continues Thursday, beginning with a discussion on the law and FASD.
Research shows that 10 per cent of people in Canadian correctional institutions are diagnosed with FASD, while another 18 per cent are suspected of having FASD.
The Royal University Hospital’s forensic outpatient clinic, which cares for patients from the Regina and Saskatoon correctional centres, reported a 56-per-cent FASD diagnosis among its patients.
Youth with FASD are 10 to 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than youth without FASD.
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