Leef’s FASD bill a ‘good start’: advocate

The head of Yukon's fetal alcohol support society says MP Ryan Leef's private member's bill regarding the disability is a "good start.

The head of Yukon’s fetal alcohol support society says MP Ryan Leef’s private member’s bill regarding the disability is a “good start.”

“It has been something that, since 2010, the Canadian Bar Association has been promoting, and now it’s been adopted by the U.S. Bar Association as well,” said Mike McCann, the executive director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon.

Leef’s bill, which is up for its first hour of debate in the House of Commons in June, targets the criminal justice system and seeks to correct some serious flaws when it comes to how the courts and jails treat people suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“It’s a physical disability,” McCann said, “and that’s such a difficult concept for people to get their heads around.”

The disorder is caused by a mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. It limits healthy brain development, especially the ability to understand cause and effect. In adolescents and adults, that can result in an appearance to be willfully rebellious and not follow rules.

It can also be hard to spot, which can lead to misunderstandings and assumptions that someone in court or jail is simply being difficult or not listening to instructions.

“What we classically associate with someone as having FASD – small stature, flattened facial features – are not recognizable necessarily,” McCann said.

“As the individual matures, some of those physical characteristics fade.”

“It’s really an invisible disability, and that’s a problem. For many people with FASD, what you see isn’t what you get.”

One common symptom of FASD is a disconnect between expressive language skills – how someone speaks – and their level of comprehension.

“It’s like a 10-second brain in a one-second world,” he said.

“They might be talking to you and carrying on a conversation and it seems like it’s all good, but the understanding of the conversation is maybe that of someone who’s only seven or eight years old,” McCann said.

When you consider that FASD often disproportionately affects poor and marginalized populations, who are themselves more likely to have run-ins with the criminal justice system, the recipe is ripe for disaster.

“Sixty per cent of people with FASD will have some amount of conflict with the law,” McCann said. “Of those, almost 90 per cent of the repeated infractions are administration of justice issues like breaches of parole, etc.”

That means someone can seem to fully understand why their parole officer is telling them to stop drinking, or stop spray painting signs around town, but the moment they walk out of the office they could go right back to doing that problematic behaviour, as though the conversation didn’t even happen.

And it’s not their fault, McCann said.

“You wouldn’t punish someone in a wheelchair because the rule says stand up, and they’re just not trying hard enough.”

That’s where Leef’s bill comes in. Among its powers, the bill would allow for courts to order FASD assessments. Once those are complete and the person has a diagnosis, the courts can then use it as a mitigating factor in reducing sentences or finding more suitable options instead of just locking people up.

There is one potential sticking point, however. The language of Leef’s bill doesn’t make it clear who will pay for these assessments, which can be very costly and time consuming.

“From my perspective as an NGO, I don’t care who pays, as long as someone does,” McCann said.

Leef himself acknowledges that negotiations over whether the provinces or the federal government should foot the bill could get sticky, but to him, it’s worth whatever headaches the fine-tuning requires.

“One of the challenges that we’re facing right now is the complexity of assessment orders,” said Leef. “Different jurisdictions have different capabilities, and we need to be ready for that. I tried to word my bill around that kind of flexibility.”

The real test of that flexibility will come once the bill passes first reading and goes to committee to be studied and discussed in more detail.

In the meantime, however, Leef is quick to point out that even if it means a big cost up front, the long-term payoffs will more than make up for it.

“It’s a discussion that I’m willing to have, but I’ll hold firm to: Do we say the status quo is acceptable just because this might be expensive? I say no, it’s not,” Leef said.

“As we see a more sensible approach to the issue, we’re going to see costs decline. We know clearly that 60 per cent of people who have FASD will have conflict with the law.

“If we can reduce that experience in the justice system, from court time and costs, incarceration costs, clearly we’re going to see the investment front-end paying back on the back end,” he said.

Contact Jesse Winter at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. The Yukon government announced three new cases of COVID-19 in Watson Lake on Oct. 23. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three new COVID-19 cases identified in Watson Lake

The Yukon government has identified three locations in town where public exposure may have occurred

A pedestrian passes by an offsales sandwich board along Fourth Avenue in Whitehorse on Oct. 22. NDP MLA Liz Hanson raised concerns Oct. 21 in the legislature about increased hospitalizations due to alcohol consumption that correlate with an extension in the hours alcohol can be sold in the territory. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Alcohol-related hospitalizations rise after off-sales hours extended

Reduced hours for off-sale liquor establishments likely part of Liquor Act spring reforms

Tourism and Culture Minister Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys) speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. The Yukon government has announced $2.8 million in tourism relief funding aimed at businesses in the accommodation sector that have already maxed out existing funds. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tourism relief funding offers $2.8 million to hotels and overnight accommodations

$15 million in relief funding is planned for the tourism sector over the next three years

The Whitehorse sewage lagoons photographed in 2011. With new regulations for wastewater anticipated to be introduced by the federal government within the next decade, the City of Whitehorse may soon be doing some prep work by looking at exactly what type of pollutants are making their way into the city’s wastewater. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Pondering pollutants

City could spend $70,000 looking at what contaminents are in waste water

Most of Whitehorse Individual Learning Centre’s class of 2020 graduates. The former students were welcomed back and honoured by staff at the school on Oct. 14 with a personalized grad ceremony for each graduate. (Submitted)
Individual Learning Centre grads honoured

Members of the Whitehorse Individual Learning Centre’s class of 2020 were welcomed… Continue reading

Benjamin Munn, 12, watches the HPV vaccine in 2013. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available to all Yukoners up to, and including, age 26. Currently the program is only available to girls ages nine to 18 and boys ages nine to 14. (Dan Bates/Black Press file)
HPV vaccine will be available to Yukoners up to, including, age 26

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

COMMENTARY: Me and systemic racism

The view from a place of privilege

Today’s mailbox: Electricity and air travel

Letters to the editor published Oct. 23, 2020

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Irony versus Climate

Lately it seems like Irony has taken over as Editor-in-Chief at media… Continue reading

Evan Lafreniere races downhill during the U Kon Echelon Halloweeny Cross-Country Race on Oct. 16. (Inara Barker/Submitted)
Costumed bike race marks end of season

The U Kon Echelon Bike Club hosted its final race of the… Continue reading

Smartphone showing various applications to social media services and Google. (Pixabay photo)
National media calling for level playing field with Google, Facebook

In Canada, Google and Facebook control 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, right, before question period at the Yukon legislative assembly in Whitehorse on March 7, 2019. The Yukon government announced Oct. 19 it has increased the honoraria rates for school council members. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Honoraria increased for school council members

Members of school councils throughout the territory could soon receive an increased… Continue reading

Most Read