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The Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women

By Andrea Corkal
Published 2019-03-28

Canada has a long legacy of colonialism in regards to the indigenous population, ranging from residential schools to land theft, much of which still remains unaddressed and concealed. One of these practices has recently come to light: indigenous women’s forced sterilization. At least 60 indigenous women have come forward to file lawsuits against the government for their experiences with coerced, forced or pressured sterilization during their health care treatment. This bleak practice has come to light to reveal how Canada’s health care system has been systematically violating indigenous women's rights and reproductive capabilities for nearly a century.

In 1928, Alberta passed the Sexual Sterilization Act. In 1933, British Columbia followed suit with an acting allowing Sexual Sterilization in their province. These acts were created in an effort to protect the gene pool by allowing the forced sterilization of people deemed to have undesirable traits. This was targeted towards people with mental disorders, alcoholics, epileptics and some form of a social defect, such as perversion and prostitution. These were traits that eugenicists believed were inherited traits that would be passed onto their offspring. This legislation left many people disproportionately vulnerable such as those unemployed, rural inhabitants, unmarried, Roman and Greek Catholics, and people of Ukrainian, native and metis ethnicity. It was also believed that people with these traits were reproducing at a higher rate than the rest of the population and there was a fear that they would soon out-populate the “normal” population. At least three thousand people were sterilized in these two provinces alone.

Other provinces also enacted policies in solution to these fears of social and moral decline within the twentieth century. Research done by Karen Stote, an assistant professor of women and gender studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, uncovered that 580 coercive sterilizations were carried out by doctors just between 1971 and 1972 in federal ‘Indian hospitals’, mainly targeting women from reserve-based communities in Saskatoon, North Battleford, Regina, and other, more rural areas. Some women were sterilized without any knowledge of the procedure being done on them, while others do not recall giving consent, or say they consented due to post-delivery exhaustion and to end the health care staffs persistent badgering. Many women went through the procedure without full knowledge of the permanent damage, or were told that the process was reversible. Furthermore, some health care officials leveraged the procedure as a means for women to be able to see their newborn children immediately after birth. All in all, thousands of indigenous women were sterilized against their wishes because of long-standing beliefs that they were irresponsible parents or possessed undesirable traits due to their ethnicity.

This act has been recognized and deemed an act of genocide, according to Article II of the United Nations convention on genocide which prohibits “imposing measures intended to prevent birth within a group.” Additionally, it is a violation of the Geneva Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment because it falls under the category of cruel and ill treatment. Under the justification of ‘family planning’ and their best interests, these policies targeted underprivileged and ethnic groups that were labeled by health care officials as incapable of responsible parenting. Motivated by the impression that the West was entering an era of biological deterioration and teenage girl promiscuity, in many instances, sterilization was seen as a necessary public health intervention that would benefit the greater populace. In An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, Stote states that the control over indigenous women’s reproductive capacities factors into the systematic and strategic manipulation of Indigenous people for assimilation into Canadian society. The process was rationalized as a means for protecting society, and as a means of supposedly protecting these women from the burden of many children, and to reduce the birth rate. Eugenic ideology ‘served as a convenient rationalization for the dire circumstances created by colonization,’ according to Stote. Coerced sterilization has roots stemming from colonialism and thus has been recognized by the UN as a human rights violation, a form of discrimination, and violence against women. The policies shaping involuntary sterilization arrive from blaming individuals for social problems, pauperism, and conceiving children they “can’t afford,” sentiments that very much still persist today. It shifts focus away from the greater political, economic and social system that has hindered indigenous communities from rising above these social issues that have long been connected with conditions of colonialism, and the failure of the federal government to uphold obligations to Indigenous peoples that created the marginalized status and poverty conditions in which Indigenous peoples live in. They are ongoing marks of colonialism that have addressed disparity in wealth and status by restricting births within the indigenous community.

Today, sixty indigenous women are filing a lawsuit against the Saskatoon Health Region, the province of Saskatchewan, the Canadian government and health professionals for their experience with forced or pressured sterilizations within the last thirty years. Some sterilizations were as recent as 2017. Each is claiming seven million dollars in damages as a result of psychological and physical harm. The leading attorney, Alisa Lombard, from Maurice Law (the first Indigenous-owned national law firm in Canada) is leading the suit against the physicians and all other parties involved. The Canadian government has yet to take concrete action on this ongoing issue. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come forward and stated that the “the coerced sterilization of some indigenous women is a serious violation of human rights,” as well as acknowledged that indigenous patients are met with discrimination and racism that prevents them from receiving the highest quality of health care available to them. Trudeau ensures that health care workers will continue to receive cultural competency training as mandated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. Aside from that, the government has been called to criminalize coerced sterilization by indigenous communities, but does not seem to be considering this as a course of action. Many of the barriers indigenous communities face still persist as the government is pressured to take action and protect these vulnerable groups. Indigenous communities continue to struggle under the aftermath of colonialism and fight for their basic rights, as they are faced with prejudice and limited access to services that should be guaranteed under the government.

Kirkup, Kristy. “UN Urges Canada to Take Action against Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women.” The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, 7 Dec. 2018, www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-un-urges-canada-to-take-action-against-forced-sterilization-of/.

Longman, Nickita. “End Forced Sterilizations of Indigenous Women in Canada.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Dec. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2018/12/04/end-forced-sterilizations-indigenous-women-canada/?noredirect=on.

Parker, Courtney. “An Act of Genocide: Canada's Coerced Sterilization of First Nations Women.” Intercontinental Cry, Intercontinental Cry, 26 Feb. 2019, intercontinentalcry.org/canadas-coerced-sterilization-of-first-nations-women/.

Stote, Karen. An Act of Genocide: Eugenics, Indian Policy, and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women in Canada. Library and Archives Canada = Bibliothèque Et Archives Canada, 2014.

Virdi, Jaipreet. “Canada's Shame: the Coerced Sterilization of Indigenous Women.” New Internationalist, 30 Nov. 2018, newint.org/features/2018/11/29/canadas-shame-coerced-sterilization-indigenous-women.