Report finds indigenous Canadian women still face forced sterilisation

Canadian Senate says ‘horrific’ practice is under-reported and underestimated

Two women embrace in front of Egerton Ryerson statue as they honor the lives of the 215 children found buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School during a Bring Our Children Home March in Toronto on Sunday, June 6, 2021. Ryerson was the chief superintendent of education for Upper Canada and his recommendations were regarded as instrumental in the design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Canadian Senate has presented a long-awaited report outlining the “horrific practice” of the forced sterilisation of indigenous women.

Released last week, it comes at a time of renewed focus on how the medical establishment treats indigenous women.

Its publication follows the recent discovery of the bodies of 215 indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Based on evidence from 14 witnesses, the standing Senate committee on human rights report highlights in particular one woman’s experience with medical professionals.

She had just given birth to her sixth child in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when she was presented with a consent form to be sterilised, which she refused to sign.

The report said the woman, identified only by her initials, tried to wheel herself out of the operating room, crying, “I don’t want this.”

She repeatedly refused the procedure but doctors performed it anyway.

When it was over, a doctor told her that her reproductive organs had been “cut, tied and burnt. There, nothing is getting through that".

The case was from 2001, but accounts of forced sterilisation have persisted through the years and continue to this day.

This year, Quebec’s provincial coroner launched an inquiry into the hospital death of Joyce Echaquan, 37, an Atikamekw woman, in the municipality of Saint-Charles-Borromee.

The mother of seven recorded a Facebook Live video moments before her death.

In it, she cries out in pain after healthcare workers, at least one of whom insults her, forcibly administer morphine despite her expressed concern about a possible adverse reaction.

Her partner, Carol Dube, revealed at the inquest that Echaquan had been sterilised against her consent in an earlier hospital visit.

For many indigenous women who have experienced forced sterilisation, the past few weeks have been particularly difficult.

The discovery of hundreds of indigenous children’s bodies in Kamloops served as a stark reminder of how Canada has treated its native population.

"The most recent findings of the lost children's bones retriggered a lot of dormant trauma," a woman who asked to be referred to by her initials MRLP told The National. She is one of dozens of women involved in a class action lawsuit in Saskatchewan who say they were sterilised against their consent.

MRLP added that her quest for justice has come at "great cost" to both her personal and professional life.

The history of forced sterilisation in Canada goes back to the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which promoted racist stereotypes and advocated advancing the human species through selective breeding.

Karen Stote, assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, said eugenics was used as a way for governments to “fix” social problems such as poverty.

From the 1920s to the early 1970s, the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta had laws that required women who were considered to be “mentally defective” to be sterilised, the report said.

But even after these laws were abolished, the practice continued and often focused on indigenous women.

Dr Stote, one of the witnesses called by the Senate, has focused much of her research on the sterilisation of indigenous women during the 1970s.

She reviewed government and hospital documents that suggest more than 1,100 indigenous women were sterilised in this period.

Two women and a girl listen as a group of youths drum and sing outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in honor of the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Friday, June 4, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
The history of forced sterilisation in Canada dates back to the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The Canadian Press via AP

"The documents I looked at tell us, I guess, what you would call a consistent racism and paternalism right on the part of those who were discussing indigenous people," Dr Stote told The National.

The Senate report said: “This horrific practice is not confined to the past but clearly is continuing today. Its prevalence is under-reported and underestimated.”

Alisa Lombard is a lawyer representing more than 100 indigenous women, including MRLP, who have filed suits in various provinces over their alleged forced sterilisation.

"These women who are pregnant, they went to the hospital to have their baby and they left sterilised without their consent," Ms Lombard said.

She said the experience had a lasting psychological effect on the women she represents.

“It is a very, very deep grief that is present in their everyday lives and that they suffer from very seriously,” Ms Lombard said.

She is calling on the government to protect indigenous women from suffering such indignities in the future.

“I would like to see the law that protects the bodily integrity of human beings, to be protected despite race and despite gender, that people meaningfully have access to those principles to protect their dignity as human beings and their reproductive capacities as they see fit,” Ms Lombard said.

The Senate is calling on Parliament to “conduct further study on the issue of forced and coerced sterilisation of people in Canada with the goal of identifying solutions to stop the practice”.

The report said it was concerned the practice happened not only in the indigenous community but other marginalised communities as well.