Legal action continues against forced or coerced sterilization practices in Canada

National News
Stock image accessed via Pixabay.

In 2017, two First Nations women in Saskatoon launched a class-action lawsuit against the province of Saskatchewan, each seeking seven million dollars in damages after they had been sterilized without proper or informed consent. 60 other women joined the lawsuit, all of them seeking seven million dollars each.

This isn’t a new problem. It’s a recurring one.

In An Act of Genocide, Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, Karen Stote cites that 580 First Nations women were sterilized in Canada in federal hospitals from 1971-1974.

“It’s a lot cheaper to intervene and stop people from reproducing than it is to address that larger society,” she writes, by meaningfully supporting their needs.

One of the women involved in the lawsuit shared that she was sterilized in the hospital after giving birth via c-section in 2008. She was asked to sign off on getting her tubes tied before surgery but this was after she had already been medicated. She also reports that she was told that the procedure was reversible.  

Another woman, at the same hospital, says that she declined the procedure, but it was performed anyway after she gave birth to her child.

“Forced sterilization of Indigenous women is an act arising from the intersecting practices of colonization, racism, and sexism.”

Another woman reported that the staff of the hospital told her and her husband that because one of their children had a health problem, it would show up in their future children, so they decided to undergo the procedure.

One woman said that doctors and nurses told her that it was for her own good.

The Martlet corresponded with Christine Sy (whose Anishinaabe name is waaseyaa’sin), an assistant Professor in Gender Studies at UVic with a focus on indigeneity and decoloniality.

“That [forced sterilization] still continues suggests to me that the logics of colonization, racism, and sexism continue to play out in Canada’s health institutions” she said. “Forced sterilization of Indigenous women is just one way that these logics play out in Canada’s health institutions.”

Ten years ago, Brian Sinclair, a First Nations man, died in the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre after waiting 34 hours for treatment of an infection. Even after he began to throw up and other patients pointed this out to security, he was ignored. By the time the staff noticed, Sinclair was dead. Unfortunately, Sinclair is only one example of medical neglect. Another infamous example of this is Jordan Peterson, a First Nations boy born with complex medical issues who spent more than two years in a hospital while the provincial government of Manitoba and the federal government argued over who should pay for his care once he returned home. He died when he was five years old, still in hospital. He never got to go home.

Senator Yvonne Boyer co-authored a 56-page report on forced sterilization with former University of Manitoba professor Judith Bartlett titled Tubal Ligation in the Saskatoon Health Region: The Lived Experience of Aboriginal Women. While the report mostly focuses on forced sterilization in Saskatchewan as it applies to the lawsuit, it also gives an overview of the history of forced sterilization in Canada more generally. Initially, the sterilization of First Nations men and women was justified as an effort to prevent their perceived mental illness from spreading. B.C. and Alberta had Sterilization Acts from 1928 to 1972 with the intent to sterilize people with mental disabilities to prevent them from having children with disabilities. While these acts didn’t specify any particular groups — other than the mentally disabled — both provinces had and still have large First Nations populations.

“I went to have a baby, not to be judged; told I can’t think for myself.”

One woman who was interviewed for Boyer and Bartlett’s report said, “I’m thinking I was an easy target. I was alone, new to city; no supports; nothing. I was out here by myself.” Another individual said, “I went to have a baby, not to be judged; told I can’t think for myself.”

“I would say that forced sterilization of Indigenous women is an act arising from the intersecting practices of colonization, racism, and sexism,” said Sy.

An example of this sexism was clear in the statement made by one of the interviewed women in the report, who said, “I felt alienated; I’m pregnant; and the nurse is supposed to be talking to me but she’s talking to my husband like I’m not even in the room.”

For some women, sterilization was presented to them as if it were a form of  birth control. Other options for contraception were in most cases hardly explained, if at all.

Since the lawsuit was launched, over 100 women have come forward with stories of their experiences with forced sterilization, and the United Nations Committee Against Torture recently called upon the Canadian government to end this practice and to have each report investigated individually. The federal government has stated its intention to address this issue. The lawsuit, meanwhile, will continue on its own timeline.