Indigenous Women in Canada Have Filed a Class Action Lawsuit Over Coerced Sterilization

This practice has affected over 60 women and is a product of racism in Canada’s medical system.

Royal University Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. Wendy Cooper. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Royal University Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. Wendy Cooper. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

While Canada is known for its progressive policies surrounding human rights and health care, this assumption can often lead to overlooking the country’s history of institutionalized discrimination against indigenous people.

Recently, sixty women have come forward to join a class action lawsuit against doctors in Saskatchewan demanding compensation for forced sterilization. According to a report in the Guardian, these women have had their fallopian tubes tied, burned, or cut, in public government funded hospitals when they were unable to properly consent. This practice not only violates medical ethics, but Canadian law. Although this practice was exposed in 2015, reported cases have continued up to 2017.

In an interview with NPR, Alisa Lombard, the lawyer representing the women said that, “while they were in the throes of labor, they would be approached, pressured, harassed to sign consent forms [for sterilization] in some cases. In other cases, there was no such signing of a consent form. And in yet other cases, they would revoke consent either on the operating table or shortly after they had actually signed.”

This new occurrence of forced sterilization follows a disturbing trend of forced or coerced sterilization that has disproportionately affected - if not only affected - women of color, women with disabilities, incarcerated women, and indigenous women. It stems from the eugenics movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that used racist and ableist ideology to justify forced sterilization of people that were not seen as ‘fit’ to reproduce. The perpetuation of this warped and inhumane theory has become clearly evident in Canada’s upcoming lawsuit.

According to Lombard, “When Indigenous women go in for these health care services and reproductive health care services in the most vulnerable state, I think, a woman can be - having gone through childbirth myself, I can say that this is not the time to have a conversation about whether you ever want to do that again. There are other better times. And so why it happens in one simple word, I think we can just say discrimination - racism, quite plainly.”

Lombard and her team uncovered that Saskatchewan health cards are embossed with a capital R. She says that the R is part of a historic practice indicating that the person holding it is registered as an indigenous person. Thus, the patient’s identity is readily available to their doctor.

While the lawsuit has yet to be certified, Amnesty International said that they would lobby the UN Committee Against Torture in order to pressure the Canadian government to act. According to Amnesty’s Jacqueline Hansen, the organization has examined comparable instances of coerced or forced sterilization in Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

“It’s always done for a very specific reason. It is clear that it’s been linked to policies around wanting to ensure a group of people doesn’t reproduce,” Hansen told the Guardian. “Ultimately, this is about women who are supposed to have the right to make decisions about their bodies, having that right taken away from them.”

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her.

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