Skip to main content

The Erasure of Ms. G.: The Cultural Specificity of Substance Abuse and Adjudication Without Imagination

  • Vera J. Roy (a1)

The essay promotes an approach to legal decision-making informed by the Geertzian notion of the ethnographic imagination as a means of understanding and adjudicating issues marked by cultural difference. The reflexivity of this approach–i.e., the way it focuses judicial awareness on the role of mainstream culture and the law itself in the construction of matters before the courts—is most critical in cases involving Aboriginal persons. The discussion proceeds in three steps. First, an historical survey of the relationship between the Canadian state and Aboriginal people highlights the cultural aspects of substance abuse in the case of Aboriginal women. Next, statistical data is synthesized to gain insight into the construction of the substance-abusing Aboriginal woman in social and legal discourse. Finally, a close study of the decisions in Winnipeg Child and Family Services v. D.F.G. reveals the enduring role of unexamined assumptions about race in judicial decision-making and the constraints placed on adjudication by traditional liberal rights discourse. The resulting erasure of cultural identity, the deficiency of the final judgment, and the potentially harmful consequences of efforts to correct its shortcomings demonstrate how the absence of culturally-reflexive judicial imagination can threaten the very meaning of adjudication for parties who are defined by culture and/or race in the eyes of society and the law.

Ce texte promeut l'approche de «l'imagination» tel que définie par Geertz dans le cadre du processus judiciaire, dans le but d'encourager la compréhension et le jugement réfléchi de cas marqués par la différence interculturelle. Cette approche réfléchie – c'est-à-dire, celle qui encourage une conscience du rôle de la culture dominante et de la loi elle-même dans les cas devant la cour – revêt une grande importance dans les cas qui impliquent des personnes d'origine autochtone. L'analyse se fait en trois étapes. Dans un premier temps, un survol de l'historique des relations entre l'État canadien et les peuples autochtones souligne l'aspect culturel de la toxicomanie dans les cas de femmes autochtones. La deuxième étape consiste en une synthèse des statistiques disponibles pour nous donner une meilleure compréhension de l'image de la femme autochtone toxicomane qui prévaut dans le discours social et juridique. Enfin, une analyse du jugement Winnipeg Child and Family Services c. D.F.G. confirme que les idées préconçues jouent un rôle important dans l'appareil judiciaire et démontre les contraintes sur le processus décisionnel créées par le discours libéral de droits individuels. Par conséquent, la disparition de l'identité culturelle, les lacunes dans les arrêts, ainsi que l'incapacité de gérer convenablement les conséquences de ces lacunes, démontrent comment l'absence «d'imagination» peut mettre en péril le fondement même des jugements pour ceux qui sont définis par leur différence devant la société et la loi.

Hide All

1 [1996] 10 W.W.R. 95, M.J. No. 386 (QL) [Winnipeg (QB)]; [1996] 10 W.W.R. 111, M.J. No. 398 (QL) [Winnipeg (CA)]; [1997] 3 S.C.R. 925, S.C.J. No. 96 (QL) [Winnipeg (SCC)].

2 Winnipeg (QB), ibid., at para. 12.

3 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1, (Factum of the Intervenors, Women's Health Clinic, Métis Women of Manitoba, Native Women's Transition Centre, Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties at para. 16), online: Women's Health Clinic <>.

4 Mental Health Act, R.S.M. 1987, c. M110

5 Winnipeg (QB), supra note 1 at para. 43.

6 Winnipeg (CA), supra note 1 at para. 4.

7 As illustration, see a newsletter entry on the case on the Campaign for Life Coalition web site, online: CLC See also McCormack, Thelma, “Fetal Syndromes and the Charter: The Winnipeg Glue-Sniffing Case” (2000) 14:2Can. J.L. & Soc. 77 at 80, quoting a spokesperson for the Child and Family Services, who asked, “[h]ow many badly damaged children does a person have the right to bring into the world?”

8 Women's Health Clinic, “A Legal Victory is Not Enough: the G. Case Ruling”, online: WHC

9 Geertz, Clifford, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000) c.4 at 68 [Geertz]; (originally published as Geertz, Clifford, “The Uses of Diversity” (1985) 25:1Mich. Q. Rev. 105).

10 Ibid., at 82.

11 See Geertz, Clifford, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

12 Geertz, supra note 9 at 82.

13 Ibid. Geertz continues: “It is not the inability of those involved to abandon their convictions and adopt the views of others that makes this little tale seem so utterly depressing. (…) It is their inability even to conceive, amid the mystery of difference, how one might get around an all-too-genuine moral asymmetry. The whole thing took place in the dark.”

14 Ibid. at 87.

16 Mattoo, Surendra K., et al., “Alienation, Sensation Seeking and Multiphasic Personality Questionnaire Profile in Men Being Treated For Alcohol and/or Opioid Dependence” (2001) 43:4Indian Journal of Psychiatry, online: IJP

17 United Nations, UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) at 100, 106.

18 LeCavalier, Jacques & McKenzie, Diane, Aboriginal substance abuse: a blueprint for action: a submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal issues by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 1993) at 2 [LeCavalier & McKenzie].

19 Randall, Melanie, “Pregnant Embodiment and Women's Autonomy Rights in Law: An Analysis of the Language and Politics of Winnipeg Child and Family Services v. D.F.G.” (1999) 62 Sask. L. Rev. 515 at 539.

20 R.S.C. 1985, App. 11, no. 1.

21 Guerin v. The Queen, [1984] 2 S.C.R. 335.

22 Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: Looking Forward, Looking Back, vol. 1 (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1996) c. 9, s. 3 [RCAP Report], online: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada>.

23 Ibid. c. 6, s. 8.

24 Ibid. c. 9, s. 8.

26 Now known as Constitution Act, 1867, 30 & 31 Victoria, c. 3 (U.K.).

27 An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians, the better management of Indian affairs, and to extend the provisions of the Act 31st Victoria, c. 42, S.C. 1869, c. 6.

28 R.S.C. 1985, c. 1–5.

29 RCAP Report, supra note 22, part 2, c. 9, s. 8.

30 Jefferson, Christie, Conquest by Law (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1994) [Jefferson].

31 This provision was repealed in the early 1970s after the Supreme Court of Canada found it to be contrary to the Canadian Bill of Rights in The Queen v. Drybones, [1970] S.C.R. 282.

32 RCAP Report, supra note 22, vol. 2, part. 2, c. 9, s. 9.7.

33 See e.g. Chrisjohn, , Young, S., & Maraun, M., The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books, 1997) at 240245; Satzewich, Vic & Zong, Li, “Social Control and the Historical Construction of Race” in Schissel, Bernard & Mahood, Linda, eds., Social Control in Canada: A Reader on the Social Construction of Deviance (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996), who state that although genocide per se was not the intention of the government, the effect produced can still be described as a kind of “cultural genocide.” See also Wilson, Ronald, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' Children from their Families (Canberra: AGPS, 1997), an Australian study of a similar system, which more forcefully argues that the policy and effects were genocidal in nature.

34 RCAP Report, supra note 22, c. 10.

38 Ibid. c. 10, s. 1.1; Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba (Winnipeg: Queen's Printer, 1991) at 514 [Manitoba Justice Inquiry].

39 RCAP Report, supra note 22, c. 10, s. 1.1.

40 Canada, The Residential School System Historical Overview, online: Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada

41 Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Basic Departmental Data 1995 (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1996), online: INAC

42 RCAP Report, supra note 22, c. 10.

44 Young, Thomas J., “Native American Drinking: A Neglected Subject of Study and Research” (1991) 21 J. Drug Educ. 65 at 69.

45 RCAP Report, supra note 22, vol. 3, c. 2, passim.

46 Ibid. vol. 1, c. 10, S.4.

48 Duran, Eduardo & Duran, Bonnie, Native American Postcolonial Psychology (Albany: State University of New York, 1995) at 24.

49 RCAP Report, supra note 22, vol. 4, c. 7, s. 1.2.

50 Manitoba Justice Inquiry, supra note 38 at 107.

51 See Jefferson, supra note 30, for an overview of the devastating effects of alcohol and the legislative reaction of the colonizing power.

52 RCAP Report, supra note 22, vol. 3 at 157.

53 Canada, Special Parliamentary Committee on Non-Medical Use of Drugs, Policy For the New Millennium: Working Together to Redefined Canada's Drug Strategy: Report of the Special Committee on Non-Medical Use of Drugs (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 2002) (Chair: Paddy Torsney, M.P.).

54 LeCavalier & McKenzie, supra note 18 at 2.

55 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Aboriginal Peoples Overview, online: CCSA

56 University of Manitoba, Manitoba First Nations Regional Health Survey Final Report (Winnipeg: Centre for Aboriginal Health Research, 1998) at 42.

57 1993 General Social Survey, in Canada Profile 1999 (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, 1999).

58 For an overview of the statistics available, see RCAP Report, supra note 22, vol. 3 at 158–160.

60 Canadian Perinatal Surveillance System, online: Public Health Agency of Canada

61 Aase, J.M., “The Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in American Indians: A High Risk Group” (1981) 3 Neurobehav. Toxicol. Teratol. 153–6.

62 See Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 at para. 88; see also a quote from Dr. Chudley, one of the Agency's expert witnesses, cited in Square, David, “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Epidemic in Manitoba Reserve” (1997) Can. Med. Assoc. J. 157, online: Canadian Medical Association Journal [Square].

63 Robinson, Geoffrey C., et al., “Clinical Profile and Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in an Isolated Community in British Columbia” (1987) 137 Can. Med. Assoc. J. 203 at 206.

64 Square, supra note 52.

66 Canadian Pediatrie Society, “Indian and Inuit Health Committee, ‘Position Statement’” (1998) 3:2Paediatrics & Child Health 123 (reaffirmed Nov. 2003) [Canadian Pediatric Society].

67 Political and Social Affairs Division, Parliamentary Research Branch, Substance Abuse and Public Policy by Chenier, Nancy Miller (Ottawa: Library of Parliament, 2001), online: Library of Parliament

68 First Nations and Inuit Community Youth Solvent Abuse Survey 1993, quoted in Canadian Criminal Justice Association, “Aboriginal Peoples and the Justice System” (2000) Can. Crim. J. Assoc. Bull., c. 3, online: CCJA

70 Flanagan, R. J. & Ives, R. J., “Volatile Substance Abuse” (1994) 2 Bulletin on Narcotics 49 (UN, Office on Drags and Crime).

71 Canadian Pediatric Society, supra note 56.

72 Baylis, Françoise, “Dissenting with the Dissent: Winnipeg Child and Family Services (Northwest Area) v. G. (D. F.)” (1998) 36 Alberta L. Rev. 785 at 792 [Baylis].

73 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 at para. 5 (majority) & 88 (dissent).

74 Jones, Kenneth L. & Smith, David W., “Recognition of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Early Infancy” (1973) 2 Lancet 999.

75 Golden, Janet, “‘An Argument that Goes Back to the Womb’: The Demedicalization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 1973–1992” (1999) 33:2J. Soc. History 269 at 275 [Golden].

76 Diduck, Alison, “Conceiving the Bad Mother: ‘The Focus Should be on the Child to be Born’” (1998) 32 U.B.C.L. Rev. 199 at 209 [Diduck].

78 Health Canada publications, for example, repeat that FAS and FAE are “preventable” conditions. See e.g. Canada: Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, Social Affairs, Seniors and the Status of Women, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Preventable Tragedy (Ottawa: Health Canada, 1992). See also Dineen, Claire E., “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: The Legal and Social Responses to its Impact on Native Americans” (1994) 70 North Dak. L. Rev. 1 at 2 (“a condition with only one onecause”) and 11 (“completely preventable condition”).

79 Harrison, Michelle, “Drug Addiction in Pregnancy: The Interface of Science, Emotion, and Social Policy” (1991) 8 J. Subs. Abuse Treatment 261 at 267 [Harrison].

80 Golden, supra note 75 at 271.

81 Rodgers, Sanda, “Winnipeg Child and Family Service v. D.F.G.: Juridical Interference with Pregnant Women in the Alleged Interest of the Fetus” (1998) 36 Alberta L. Rev. 711 at 720 [Sanda Rodgers].

82 Monture, Patricia, “A Vicious Circle: Child Welfare and the First Nations” (1989) 3 Can. J.W.L. 1 at 2 [Monture].

83 Diduck, supra note 76 at 213.

84 RCAP report, supra note 22, vol. 3, c. 2, s. 2.2; Manitoba Justice Inquiry, supra note 38 at 519.

85 Ibid., at 5.

86 Rodgers, Sanda, “Juridical Interference with Gestation and Birth” in Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, Proceed With Care: Report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies (Ottawa: Minister of Government Services Canada, 1993) at 89.

87 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 (Factum of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund at para. 50).

88 Winnipeg (Q.B.), supra note 1.

89 Ibid., at para. 25.

90 Ibid. at para. 26.

91 Ibid., at para. 6.

92 Ibid., at para. 3.

93 Ibid., at para. 7.

94 Ibid. at para. 5.

95 Ibid., at para. 4.

96 Ibid. at para. 16.

97 Ibid. at para. 20.

99 Ibid. at para. 10.

100 A ruling in Ontario illustrates the power of this image: a young pregnant woman who had been working as a prostitute was sentenced to 60 days in prison, a greatly exaggerated sentence, precisely because she was pregnant. See Sanda Rodgers, supra note 81 at 45–46, for a description of the case and an excerpt from transcripts illustrating the moralistic tone used by the judge when addressing the woman.

101 Manitoba Justice Inquiry, supra note 38, citing Emma LaRocque at 479.

102 Winnipeg (Q.B.), supra note 1 at para. 10.

103 Ibid. at para. 21.

104 Ibid. at para. 11.

105 See for example Diduck, supra note 76 at 214.

106 Monture, supra note 82 at 12: “First Nations distrust the child welfare system because it has effectively assisted in robbing us of our children and of our future.”

107 Winnipeg (CA.), supra note 1.

108 Ibid. at para. 2.

109 Ibid. at para. 1.

110 Ibid. at paras. 3–4.

111 Ibid. at para. 3.

112 Ibid. at paras. 27–28.

113 Ibid. at para. 26.

114 Ibid. at para. 34.

115 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1.

116 Ibid. at para. 81.

117 Ibid. at paras. 68–74.

118 Ibid. at paras. 68–71, 73–74.

119 Ibid. at paras. 69, 72–73.

120 Ibid. at paras. 68–69.

121 Ibid. at para. 88.

122 Ibid.

123 Ibid.

124 Ibid. at para. 63.

125 Ibid. at para. 141.

126 Ibid. at para. 95.

127 Ibid. at para. 70.

128 Ibid. at para. 65.

129 Harrison, supra note 79 at 267.

130 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 at para. 93.

131 Ibid. at para. 121.

132 Baylis, supra note 72 at 792.

133 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 at 140.

134 Ibid. at para. 5.

135 Ibid.

136 Ibid.

137 Ibid. at para. 41.

138 Ibid. at para. 41, citing Hanigsberg, J. E., “Power and Procreation: State Interference in Pregnancy” (1991) 23 Ottawa L. Rev. 35 at 53.

139 Ibid. at para. 41.

140 Ibid. at para. 43.

141 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 (Factum of the Women's Health Rights Coalition at para. 4).

142 Winnipeg (SCC), supra note 1 at para. 40.

143 Ibid. at para. 42.

144 Ibid.

145 Ibid. at para. 34.

146 Ibid. at para. 39.

147 Ibid. at para. 12.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
  • ISSN: 0829-3201
  • EISSN: 1911-0227
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-of-law-and-society-la-revue-canadienne-droit-et-societe
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 8 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 66 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st May 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.