EDITORIALS  Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women is Genocide

A lawsuit pending class-action status is being brought against Canadian healthcare providers by Maurice Law, an Indigenous-owned national law firm. The lawsuit is representing dozens of Indigenous women, each seeking over $7 million in damages, for forced or coerced sterilization. The lawsuit is being brought against the federal government, the Saskatchewan government, all health regions across the province of Saskatchewan, as well as individual medical professionals. At least 60 Indigenous women have now joined the two original plaintiffs who came forward in 2015, demanding compensation for these sterilizations.

The main concern of the lawsuit is whether proper and informed consent was obtained prior to sterilization. Medical consent must be informed and freely given, but the experiences of the women coming forward indicate that neither of these conditions were met. Most of the women were falsely informed that the procedure was reversible. Some were in the middle of receiving anesthetics or already under anaesthesia when asked to give consent. Others were coerced into signing consent forms while still in labour or on the operating table. In several cases, women were told that they could not leave the hospital or see their newborns until they had undergone sterilization. In one case, a health professional only asked for consent after having already begun the process of sterilization.

This practice has long-term ramifications on the mental health of those affected. Alisa Lombard, a lawyer at Maurice Law representing the plaintiffs, mentioned one case in Manitoba where an Indigenous woman took her life after being forcibly sterilized. Another woman, who was sterilized at 17, says that 40 years later, she still feels the impacts. In all these cases, it is clear that women are forced into sterilization. By both legal and moral standards, coerced consent is not consent. This practice continuously denies women their agency.

Canada’s use of forced sterilization to control marginalized communities is not new, nor is it unique to Saskatchewan. Alberta and British Columbia passed sexual sterilization acts in 1928 and 1933 under which 2,800 and 400 people were sterilized, respectively. These acts called for the sterilization of those deemed “mentally unfit.” They were advocated for by eugenicist organizations who sought to “purify” society by forcibly sterilizing those seen as “inferior,” on the basis of race, class, and ability. These sterilizations disproportionately affected First Nations and Metis populations.

The forced sterilization of Indigenous people is an act of genocide, as per the UN definition. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to speak on the subject, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called forced sterilization a “very serious violation of human rights.” However, the government has yet to propose any substantive policies and reparations to address forced sterilization. Amnesty International has called for outside observers to examine the prevalence of forced sterilizations in Canada, and will be bringing the case to the UN Committee Against Torture later this month. Senator Yvonne Boyer and physician Dr. Judith Bartlett, who produced the initial report on forced or coerced sterilizations in 2017, have expressed their support for Amnesty International’s call to action. In addition to an in-depth investigation, Amnesty calls upon the government to create policies that explicitly prohibit sterilization without free and fully informed consent. They have also demanded that the government implement Truth and Reconciliation Calls 23 and 24 “on increasing the number of Indigenous healthcare professionals, and providing cultural competency training to all health care professionals.”

It is imperative we hold the government accountable for its past actions, its current complicity in the active oppression and murder of Indigenous people, and its failure to enact policies to ensure the safety and autonomy of Indigenous people. We demand immediate support for Senator Boyer and Amnesty International Canada’s call for the federal government to appoint an Indigenous special representative to examine the national scope of this heinous practice.

We encourage you to send this editorial to your MP to demand immediate action.