Meet the Fellows: 2019 Newcombe Fellow Leslie Sabiston

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2019 class of Fellows includes Leslie Sabiston, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Columbia University. Les traces the origin of his topic:

The seed of my dissertation goes back to my work in a gang-intervention program for young Indigenous men in my home community of Winnipeg. It was there that I noticed a pervasive narrative in which these young men were said to have “the look” of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Noting that many of these boys did not have an official diagnosis of FASD, I came to wonder how so many people, from social workers to probation officers and lawyers, learned how to casually diagnose FASD just by looking at someone. Diagnosing FASD is a clinically complex procedure that requires a team of specialists to determine if one’s neurodevelopmental challenges are related to exposure to alcohol while in utero. I began to realize that FASD was becoming shorthand for explaining the behaviours and actions of these youth who were chronically engaged with the criminal justice system. After all, FASD does commonly express as cognitive struggles with long-term memory and tendencies to be impulsive, and has even been categorized as a “risk factor” for criminological behaviour by FASD researchers. These correlations of FASD and criminality never sat well in my mind, however. And it worried me greatly that people were trying to explain the actions and desires of these youth – to join gangs or to steal cars, for instance – with reference to a biological diagnosis of brain damage rather than looking at the conditions of structural inequality in which these young men lived.

It also became apparent to me that FASD “made sense” to a broader public imagination given the widely held stereotypes of alcoholism in Indigenous country and, even more disturbingly, that FASD “fit” within a broader racist narrative of irresponsible Indigenous women who are procreating disruptive and dysfunctional communities that threaten society. Without attempting to deny the reality of FASD and the long-term effects that pre-natal alcohol exposure can have on a person, I sought to unravel this complex set of medical and legal frameworks that are coming to define Indigenous peoples today. As a member of the Métis Nation, my academic work is driven by social commitments to my Indigenous relatives and the political project of addressing the gross inequalities that so many Indigenous peoples face under Canadian colonial rule. I hope that my work can make some small contribution to understanding how historical violence of Indigenous and European encounter continues to inform cultural, institutional, and intellectual forms in North America today.

Leslie’s dissertation, titled Fear of Indigenous (dis)Orders: New Medico-legal Alliances for Capturing and Managing Indigenous Life in Canada, investigates how emerging relationships between systems of law and medicine are creating new possibilities for defining criminality, and the particular social and political effects this is having on Indigenous peoples in Canada. For more information on the 2019 Newcombe Fellows, click here.



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