Persistent Coercive Sterilization of Indigenous Women in Canada, Despite Halt in Other Affluent Nations

by Sophia Chen
Forced Sterilizations

Allegations of Indigenous women in Canada still being forcibly sterilized decades after this practice has ceased in other developed countries are proliferating. Numerous doctors, politicians, activists and at least five class-action lawsuits indicate that the practice remains ongoing.

Last year, a Senate report expressed that this appalling practice was not just history but an enduring reality. Recently, a doctor was penalized for performing a forcible sterilization procedure on an Indigenous woman in 2019. Indigenous leaders are emphasizing that the nation is yet to confront its complex colonial history and put an end to this long-lasting practice, which equates to a form of genocide.

The lack of robust estimates on the number of women being sterilized without their consent or awareness is concerning, but reports suggest it’s a common issue. Sen. Yvonne Boyer, with her office gathering the available limited data, mentions that at least 12,000 women have been impacted since the 1970s.

When conversing with Indigenous communities, an overwhelming number of women reveal their experiences with forced sterilization, stated Boyer, who is of Indigenous Metis descent, during an interview with The Big Big News.

Recent disciplinary measures against a doctor for forcibly sterilizing an Indigenous woman were enacted by the medical authorities in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Documents procured by the AP reveal this might be the first occurrence of such sanctions.

Dr. Andrew Kotaska is implicated in this case. In November 2019, he conducted an operation to alleviate an Indigenous woman’s abdominal pain. Though he had written consent to remove her right fallopian tube, the patient, an Inuit woman, did not agree to the removal of her left tube. This would result in her sterility if both were removed.

Ignoring other medical staff’s objections during the procedure, Kotaska removed both fallopian tubes. The investigation concluded there was no medical rationale for the sterilization. His unprofessional conduct, deemed as a “serious surgical judgement error,” took away the patient’s ability to bear more children, and potentially undermines faith in the medical system.

Regrettably, this case isn’t likely an anomaly. Over the past seventy years, thousands of Indigenous Canadian women were subjected to forced sterilizations, echoing eugenics legislation deeming them inferior. Meanwhile, in the U.S., mandatory sterilizations of Native American women primarily ceased in the 1970s due to the introduction of regulations necessitating informed consent.

The Geneva Conventions categorize forced sterilization as a genocide type and a crime against humanity. Though the Canadian government has decried reports of forced sterilizations in other regions, including amongst Uyghur women in China, activists contend that little has been done to tackle entrenched prejudices against the Indigenous, allowing forced sterilizations to persist.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women throughout Canada as “genocide,” but critics argue this has done little to halt the ongoing issue. The Canadian government stated it was conscious of accusations that Indigenous women were being forcibly sterilized and affirmed that this matter is now before the courts. “Sterilization of women without their informed consent is an assault and a criminal offense,” the government confirmed, recognizing the urgent need to end this practice nationwide. The government is collaborating with provincial and territorial authorities, health agencies, and Indigenous groups to eradicate systemic racism within the country’s health systems.

However, Sen. Boyer remembers a poignant encounter with a tearful Indigenous woman describing her forced sterilization. “It made my knees buckle to hear her story and to realize how common it was,” Boyer shared. “Nothing has changed legally or culturally in Canada to stop this.”

The Indigenous population comprises about 5% of nearly 40 million Canadians, with the largest populations living in the north: Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. Over 600 Indigenous communities, known as First Nations, confront substantial health challenges compared to other Canadians. Until the 1990s, Indigenous people were largely treated in racially segregated hospitals with numerous reports of widespread abuse.

Estimating the prevalence of sterilization — consensual or not — is complex. Canada’s national health agency doesn’t systematically gather sterilization data, including patients’ ethnicity or the circumstances under which the procedure occurs.

Testimonies and reports from various victims have highlighted the traumatic experiences associated with these forced sterilizations, leading to investigations and reports on the extent of the problem.

Indigenous leaders and activists argue that official acknowledgment and apology would be a pivotal step towards repairing Canada’s strained relations with First Nations people. To date, only the province of Alberta has issued an apology and offered compensation to those affected before 1972.

Despite Canada’s reputation as a progressive society, its continued forced sterilization of Indigenous women juxtaposes it with nations such as India and China, where this practice primarily affects women from ethnic minorities.

“Forced sterilizations have enduring consequences,” said Morningstar Mercredi, an Indigenous author who discovered years later that she was sterilized at the age of 14. “Those responsible must be held accountable. No amount of therapy or healing can reconcile the fact that my human right to have children was taken from me.”

This article has been revised to accurately depict Dr. Unjali Malhotra’s title as a medical officer, not a chief medical officer.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada

What is the issue with Indigenous women and sterilization in Canada?

Despite the halt of forced sterilization in many wealthy nations, there are allegations that the practice continues in Canada against Indigenous women. These claims are supported by numerous activists, medical professionals, politicians, and at least five class-action lawsuits. It is difficult to estimate the number of affected women, but some sources suggest at least 12,000 women have been forcibly sterilized since the 1970s.

What was the conclusion of the Senate report on forced sterilization in Canada?

The Canadian Senate report from last year declared that forced sterilization of Indigenous women is not only a historical issue but continues today. The report calls for compensation for victims, measures to tackle systemic racism in healthcare, and a formal apology.

What is the Canadian government’s stance on the forced sterilization allegations?

The Canadian government has acknowledged the allegations of forced sterilization and stated that sterilization without informed consent is a criminal offense. They are collaborating with provincial and territorial authorities, health agencies, and Indigenous groups to eliminate systemic racism in the country’s health systems.

What actions have been taken in response to this issue in Canada?

In recent years, the Canadian government has invested over 87 million Canadian dollars to improve access to culturally safe health services, a third of which supports Indigenous midwifery initiatives. They have also allocated 6.2 million Canadian dollars to assist survivors of forced sterilization. However, there are at least five class-action lawsuits against health, provincial, and federal authorities involving forced sterilizations across Canada.

Who are some notable figures involved in this issue?

Dr. Andrew Kotaska, a doctor who performed non-consensual sterilization on an Indigenous woman, was penalized, making it possibly the first case of its kind. Senator Yvonne Boyer has been collecting data on the issue, asserting that forced sterilization remains prevalent. Dr. Alika Lafontaine, the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Medical Association, has also spoken about ambiguous consent situations in his experience.

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Micheal Stone July 13, 2023 - 1:17 am

Great write up, important issue but heartbreaking… Need more articles like this!

Sally Green July 13, 2023 - 9:55 am

i cant believe this is happening in the 21st century 🙁 we need to do better.

Linda Martz July 13, 2023 - 6:28 pm

such a sad story, makes me mad! this should never happen, consent should be a priority. always!

Jamie O'Reilly July 13, 2023 - 7:21 pm

Woah! never knew this was a thing. So shocking. Those poor women, so brave for speaking out.

Thomas Shaw July 13, 2023 - 9:19 pm

what a powerful piece, well written! Hope the doctors are held accountable…


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