A Canadian Senator is calling for an investigation into recent allegations of forced or coerced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada. It’s a disturbing practice rooted in racism, eugenics, and colonization. Here’s what you need to know.
Recent forced sterilization? What’s going on?
Last week, Senator Yvonne Boyer — a Metis lawyer and former nurse — called for a Senate investigation into the forced sterilization of Indigenous women. She called it a “most heinous” crime and demanded a thorough investigation to uncover exactly how widespread the practice is. What we know right now is mostly anecdotal, based on the stories of women who’ve stepped forward.
And what are they saying?
Essentially, Indigenous women as recently as 2017 have alleged that doctors coerced them into undergoing tubal ligations (having their tubes tied, in common parlance, in which women’s fallopian tubes are tied, cut or blocked, and sometimes cauterized). The procedure sterilizes women and is mostly not reversible.
Women have said that doctors and nurses pressured and blackmailed them into receiving the procedure — often just after they’d given birth. Some say they were told that they couldn’t leave the hospital without getting it done. Some say they were told they couldn’t see their new babies unless they had the procedure.
One Metis woman said that she went to a hospital to give birth. She told medical staff she didn’t want to be sterilized, she said in an interview with the CBC, “then all of a sudden I smell something burning.”
Yes. As in they were doing the procedure.
And forced sterilizations have been happening up until last year?
That we know of. Indigenous women in Saskatchewan launched a class-action lawsuit against the Saskatoon Health Region last year claiming $7 million in damages, and 60 women have joined the suit. Their lawyer, Alisa Lombard, says she heard of a case in 2017, as well as cases in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
That sounds disgustingly widespread.
It does. Amnesty International is calling on the federal government to investigate and end the practice.
Lombard is also taking her allegations to the UN Committee Against Torture next month. Her firm is demanding that health authorities investigate complaints, discipline doctors, and issue guidelines to prevent this from happening. The firm also wants forced sterilization to be criminalized in Canada.
Are you saying this isn’t a crime?
It’s not explicitly written into the Criminal Codes as a crime, no.
Good question. For context, forced sterilization has a long history in Canada, and North America more broadly.
A 2015 book, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, found 580 sterilizations of Indigenous women in Canada between 1971 and 1974, all at federal hospitals. They were carried out by “eugenically minded doctors” (those that believe humans should be selectively bred to improve the population’s genetic composition), argued the book’s author, Karen Stote.
In a recent interview with the CBC, Janet Smylie, a research chair at St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto, said forced sterilization is “rooted in racism, systemic racism, attitudinal racism, and the images of Indigenous women as sexualized people that actually are recorded by the very first European settlers in this country.”
And it’s not just Indigenous women who have been subjected to this unsettling abuse. The sterilization of intellectually disabled people and those with mental health problems was written into Alberta’s law in the mid-twentieth century, and permitted by the province to be conducted without patients’ consent. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Supreme Court ruled that adults with mental disabilities can’t be sterilized without their consent.
In America, forced sterilization has been deeply tied to racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, eugenics, and discrimination. In 1972, the U.S. government admitted that it had sterilized 3,406 Native American women over just three years, from 1973 and 1976, without evidence that women had given properly informed consent. Federally funded sterilization programs existed in 32 states, and tens of thousands of people were sterilized (men and women). As recently as 2013, women in U.S. prisons were coerced into being sterilized. Meaning that this assault on women’s autonomy and health appears to be ongoing on both sides of the border.
So what’s going to happen with these recent allegations?
Given the outcry over these latest revelations in Canada, it’s likely the federal government — especially one that says it wants to do far better by Indigenous Canadians — will be forced to at least respond to the allegations, if not act.