It's a story you might expect to see a century ago. But this is recent history—as in just last year.
More than 60 Indigenous women are suing physicians, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the province of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Canada, saying they were sterilized against their will after giving birth. The sterilizations took place over the past 20 to 25 years, with the most recent incident happening in 2017.
Alisa Lombard, an associate at Maurice Law, the law firm handling the proposed class action lawsuit, told CBC Radio about what the indigenous women experienced.
"The women report going into hospital to have a baby, being pressured into signing a consent form, while in the throes of labour and the immediate aftermath of delivery, or not signing consent forms at all," she said. "In most cases, women report being told that the procedure was reversible—if not in all cases—and they leave sterile."
Some women were told they would not be allowed to see their newborns until they agreed to a tubal ligation.
The women's stories appear to show a pattern of coercion and harassment from the health professionals who were supposed to be taking care of them. "They would be approached, harassed, coerced into signing these consent forms," said Lombard, "or simply told that they could not leave before their tubes were tied or cut or cauterized, depending on the procedure that was used. Or that they could not see their baby until they agreed, or that CAS would be called or that they had to do this for their own health, for their children's health because they may have children who won't be healthy."
Newly appointed Senator Yvonne Boyer, the first Indigenous Senator for Ontario, produced a detailed report on forced sterilizations last year. She is a Métis lawyer and a former nurse, and she is calling on the Canadian government to take action on this issue.
“If it’s happened in Saskatoon, it has happened in Regina, it’s happened in Winnipeg, it’s happened where there’s a high population of Indigenous women,” Boyer said in an interview with CBC news. “I’ve had many women contact me from across the country and ask me for help.”
Such sterilizations are bafflingly not illegal, which is one thing advocates are trying to change.
If you're looking for a logical explanation for this travesty besides prejudice and racism, give it up.
Dr. Janet Smylie, a family doctor and research chair at St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto, told CBC Radio that a combination of systemic and attitudinal racism fueled by stereotypes of Indigenous mothers are what underlie these sterilizations.
"In addition to the legal remedies and restitution of the situation and compensation and support for those women and their families and communities," Smylie says, "we have to radically change the way that we train our professionals and we have to teach them that stereotypes about Indigenous people and other marginalized social groups are still rampant. That good intentions are not enough, that often this ingrouping and outgrouping is happening at an unconscious level that we're not aware of, and we have to learn to recognize and challenge those unconscious patterns so we treat everybody with respect. Because we're trained in how to get informed consent, but we're offering it in a differential manner."
Smylie pointed out that this is simply a continuation of practices that have been going on for centuries. "It's been 500 years that this undermining of Indigenous women's reproductive sovereignty and these stereotypes around gendered racism have been perpetuated in North America."
She believes part of the solution is having Indigenous women be involved in advocating for birthing women. "We need to support Indigenous midwives and Indigenous doulas," she said. "There's amazing movements of local First Nations, Métis, Inuit women who are trained and can support and advocate for women, so that they can actually intervene."
The fact that this kind of thing ever happened is reprehensible. But the fact that the powers that be are still perpetuating such injustices against native people in the 21st century—and that it's not illegal—is too horrific and heinous to abide.