Canada indigenous women are coerced into...
Bodily autonomy and valid consent processes are fundamental to human rights. Sterilisation is an important means of fertility control but should never infringe human rights.
Various ideologies, promoted from the late 19th century until well into the second half of the 20th, have contributed to practices of involuntary (forced) sterilisation, especially of those considered to be ‘undesirable’ or a ‘burden to society’. Imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy have all influenced social and economic standards by which people and their fertility are valued.
Common to all involuntary sterilisation is an abuse of power and preying on vulnerable groups. It has been carried out both within legal systems, which contained specific statutes for eugenic sterilisation, and outside the legal system – where society turned a blind eye, there was a lack of enforcement by authorities, or it was done in a covert manner.
Have these abuses now stopped? Sadly not. Twenty-first century reports of forced sterilisation have been identified from 38 countries.
A report in 2017 from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan showed endemic coercion of indigenous peoples. According to The Guardian in 2017, two indigenous women in Canada have filed a class action lawsuit over allegations that they were coerced into undergoing sterilisation at a Saskatchewan hospital. The suit was launched after health authorities in the province admitted that several women had come forward with similar claims.
“You have to ask yourself, how did this happen?” said Alisa Lombard, the lawyer who filed the statement of claim. “These are people whose choices were taken away and they are choices based in fundamental human rights. The very intimate and personal decision to have children – or to not have children – belongs to the individual. It’s not something that can be fettered or influenced or coerced or forced.”
She pointed to the United Nations convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide, which includes measures aimed at preventing births within a group. “When you talk about genocide, no one wants to think Canada,” she said. “I don’t want to call it that, but I have to call it that, because that’s what it is.”
Historians have long documented the disproportionate effect that policies on sterilisation have had on Canada’s indigenous women. In 1928, the province of Alberta enacted legislation aimed at sterilising those considered mentally challenged and other disadvantaged groups. An estimated 2,800 sterilisations were carried out – including on many Aboriginal people – before the act was repealed in 1972. Authorities in British Columbia, which passed its own act in 1933, sterilised some 400 people.
The issue of coerced sterilisations in Saskatchewan was thrust into the spotlight in 2015, after several women told local media that they had felt pressured into having a tubal ligation immediately after childbirth at a hospital in Saskatoon. An investigation was launched and the province’s health authority issued an apology and new criteria for tubal ligations. But the pending lawsuit suggests that some cases occurred as recently as 2017.
According to a new press release, human rights groups are calling on Canada to end the coerced sterilization of indigenous women, as a growing number of victims seek to join a class action lawsuit against government and medical professionals. At least 60 women have joined a pending class action lawsuit against doctors and health officials in the province of Saskatchewan, seeking compensation for the violation of their rights.
The lawsuit has yet to be certified by a judge, but Amnesty International announced it will lobby the UN committee against torture to increase pressure on the Canadian government to act.
Some of the complainants have said they were told they would not be allowed to see their newborn child unless they agreed to the procedure. “These women and their communities have suffered. They have suffered. And they are entitled to restitution as they essentially relive their trauma,” said Alisa Lombard, the lawyer representing the women. “I think the genesis of this, and of treatment of people across the board, is really rooted in racism,” she said. “I think we have to call it what it is.”
Indigenous lawyer Senator Yvonne Boyer considers the problem more widespread than thought and told the Canadian Press. "I've had many women contact me from across the country and ask me for help." Boyer, senator from Ontario says "tubal ligations carried out on unwilling Indigenous women is one of the "most heinous" practices in health care happening across Canada." Boyer is a Metis lawyer and former nurse.
Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott described the practice as "horrifying" in an interview with the Canadian Press. “The issue of forced sterilization of vulnerable people, including indigenous women, is a very serious violation of human rights,” she said.
These reports state that racism exists within Canadian healthcare system. Health issues and the breakdown of relationships are just two of the lasting consequences the procedure had had on the women. It’s always done for a very specific reason. It is clear that it’s been linked to policies around wanting to ensure a group of people doesn’t reproduce. However, human rights should not be compromised by population policies. Under international law, it is very clear forced sterilization is torture. This practice needs to stop.