First Nations community worker sees links between FASD and children’s environmental health

“I think Lyne enjoys pushing me out of my comfort zone,” says Lynda Banning. The ‘Lyne’ she is talking about is Lyne Soramaki, a public health nurse with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit. She recruited Lynda to be the spokesperson for the Aboriginal Working Committee during the local launch of the CPCHE ‘Top 5 Tips’ video.

A good choice. For the past 22 years, Lynda Banning has worked in native organizations in Thunder Bay and on Fort William First Nation, and is currently on the Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) Team of the Union of Ontario Indians.

Still, with her focus on the effects of alcohol on fetal development, it wasn’t until 2008 that she began to think about other ways in which children’s health can be affected by the environments in which they live. That’s when she was asked to assist with the preparation of a booklet on First Nation children’s environmental health.

What she found was quite disturbing.

“This was the first time I had heard about ‘gender benders’ or hormone disruptors,” says Lynda.

She learned that a community within her territory, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia's Chemical Valley, has had a skewed sex ratio dating back to the mid-1990’s, where new-born girls outnumber boys 2 to 1.

“These figures were a dramatic shift from what they had been previously,” says Lynda. “It was difficult to believe how much of an impact environmental issues may have on development of a fetus. I would say that my curiosity was piqued by this point.”

The booklet she was assisting with, Through the Eyes of a Child: First Nation Children's Environmental Health, was completed and published in 2009. It was then that Lyne Soramaki first saw the potential value of collaborating with Lynda, and asked her if she would be willing to co-facilitate training workshops for service providers in the First Nations communities.

During her preparation for the workshops, Lynda watched a video The Scars of Mercury that tells the sad story of people living on the Grassy Narrows First Nation, and the devastating effect mercury in the water can have on the food source for many First Nation communities.

“As I watched the video I realized that many of the symptoms of mercury poisoning present as inebriation and could look a lot like FASD,” says Lynda. “I was able to identify a connection between FASD and environmental toxins in that the mother's body is the environment for the developing fetus. Babies in the womb are at greater risk of damage caused by exposure to alcohol as well as environmental toxins during their quick in-utero developmental period.”

Another Lyne-Lynda collaboration followed when together they produced the Protecting Our Children's Future: A Caring for Mother Earth Checklist, a revision of the Home Environment Checklist that Lyne had developed in her role at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit.

“It was launched at the exact time that the Idle No More rallies began, so the timing couldn't have been better,” says Lynda. “Native people who, much like me, hadn't given a whole lot of thought to environmental issues were starting to become more aware of them. They began to realize the detrimental effects environmental toxins could have on our next seven generations. They are becoming more vocal on this issue and lobbying the government in an effort to protect the environment.”

“I can't thank Lyne enough for ‘strongly’ encouraging me to work with her on this booklet,” says Lynda. “I think that understanding the connection between environmental health and children's health is extremely important.”

As for her role as spokesperson for the CPCHE ‘Top 5 Tips’ video, Lynda has this to say: “I think the video is very well done. I will enjoy showing it to our communities during workshops here in the Northern Superior Region. It is informative and it will provide relevant information that can help our communities to protect our children from environmental toxins. One thing that I would like to see is for the video to be translated to Anishinaabemowin in its varying dialects.”

Lynda Banning can be contacted by email at lynda.banning@anishinabek.ca