Involuntary Sterilizations of Indigenous Women in Canada Prompt Condemnation by UN Committee on Torture

By Katya Pollock (PO ’21)

The UN Committee on Torture published a report this Friday urging the Canadian government to launch an investigation into the involuntary sterilization of Indigenous women and girls. The report follows the filing of a class-action lawsuit representing 100 Indigenous Canadian women who allege that they were coerced or forced to undergo tubal litigation, a permanent birth control procedure, between 1970 and 2017.

Maurice Law, the only indigenous-led law firm in Canada, has filed the class action which names the Government of Canada, the Government of Saskatchewan and its health authorities, and five medical professionals operating in Saskatchewan as defendants. The lawsuit was launched after an external review of tubal litigation practices in Saskatchewan found “pervasive systemic racism” against Indigenous women. The class action includes two representative plaintiffs, addressed as M.R.L.P and S.A.T in court documents, who were allegedly involuntarily sterilized in 2008 and 2001.

S.A.T, a Cree woman and Status Indian, gave birth to her sixth child at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 2001. Court documents allege that after the birth of her child, she was brought to an operating room against her will to be sterilized through tubal litigation. S.A.T allegedly explicitly protested the procedure and does not recall signing a consent form. As required under Saskatchewan law, her health card included the race identifier, “R”, which would have signaled to health workers that she was registered with the federal government as a Status Indian.

M.R.L.P, an Anishinaabe woman, gave birth to her second child by emergency C-section at the same hospital in 2008. According to court documents, she experienced significant emotional distress during delivery due to medical complications and the absence of her parents and her child’s father, who were unsupportive of her pregnancy. Nursing reports written during M.R.L.P’s stay at the hospital characterized M.R.L.P as  “unstable”, “belligerent to staff”, and “an emotional wreck”. Her doctor allegedly falsely described tubal litigation as a reversible surgery and asked for M.R.L.P’s consent to the procedure while opioids were being administered for severe labour pains. When M.R.L.P later sought to have the procedure reversed, she was told by a health professional that any attempts at reversal would be unlikely to improve her chances of pregnancy.

Under international law, sterilization without “free, full, and informed consent” constitutes torture and is in violation of several human rights, including the right to decide on the number and spacing of one’s children and the right to found a family. Although there is no Canadian law which specifically criminalizes involuntary sterilization, Canada’s Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has pointed to existing provisions in Canada’s Criminal Code which would cover involuntary sterilization, including those prohibiting assault and terminating pregnancies against an expectant mother’s wishes.

“It is impossible not to conclude that this arises from a context of deeply entrenched racism and colonialism,” testified Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, at the UN Committee on Torture’s hearings. “This is tied up with stereotypes of Indigenous women as being incapable mothers.” The current allegations build on a horrific history of eugenics policies designed to limit Indigenous population growth in Canada. In the early 1960s, before the birth control pill was yet legalized in Canada, the federal government and the Catholic Church encouraged doctors to prescribe the pill in Indigenous communities with the intent to reduce the indigenous birth rate.   Involuntary sterilization of Indigenous men and women was effectively legalized in Alberta in 1937, when The Sexual Sterilization Act was amended to allow for the involuntary sterilization of individuals deemed “mentally deficient”. Between 1969 and 1972, Indigenous peoples made up roughly 3% of Alberta’s population but over 25% of those sterilized under the Act.

The Assembly of First Nations, an Ottawa-based assembly of First Nations chiefs, is advocating for changes to the Canadian Criminal Code which would criminalize involuntary sterilization, as recommended in the UN Committee’s report. Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has previously indicated that she will not pursue legal changes, but that the federal government will engage with Canada’s provinces and territories, health educators, associations of health professionals and Indigenous partners to examine changes which would end involuntary sterilizations and bring justice to survivors.

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