Nickita Longman is a Saulteaux writer from George Gordon First Nation. She resides in Winnipeg and works in communications.
Last month 60 Indigenous women sued the Saskatoon Health Region, the province of Saskatchewan, the Canadian government and medical professionals for their experiences with coerced, forced or pressured sterilization in Saskatchewan over the course of 20 to 25 years. The procedures, which occurred from about the 1930s to as recently as 2017, targeted Indigenous women specifically. Each claimant is filing for $7 million in compensation, citing psychological and physical damage since the procedures.
While some women do not recall giving consent for sterilization, others say they consented because of post-delivery exhaustion and persistence from health staff. Some women state that they were unclear about the permanent damage such procedures would have or were told that the sterilization could be reversed later. Others cite that health officials leveraged the procedure as a means to be able to see their newborn children immediately after birth.
This is plainly an act of genocide and should not be labeled as anything less, in accordance with Article II of the United Nations convention on genocide which prohibits “imposing measures intended to prevent birth within a group.”
In November 2015, two Indigenous women contacted local media to tell their personal experiences with the sterilization procedure within the Saskatoon Health Region. Brenda Pelletier reported that after providing consent post-birth, she had done so to relieve the badgering and pestering of health staff. Once on the operating table, the exhausted mother once again contested the operation, but the procedure was carried out despite her protest.
In an interview on Oct. 27, 2017, Alisa Lombard, a lawyer with Maurice Law who filed the statements, posed the question:
The procedures have larger implications for our community and its ability to thrive and work toward self-determination.
Sen. Yvonne Boyer, a Métis lawyer and former nurse who has conducted an external review on tubal ligations in the Saskatoon Health Region, has suggested that if this happened in Saskatoon, it has likely also happened in other cities on the prairies where the Indigenous population is dense. The government of Canada has had a long history of violence and oppression against Indigenous people, and this is especially true on the prairies. Saskatchewan in particular has one of the highest incarceration rates of Indigenous people of any province in Canada; most victims of police shootings in Saskatchewan were Indigenous; it also has one of the highest rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and alarming rates of poverty, including child poverty, both on and off reserve.
The harm of ongoing colonization, including theft of land, resources and children, is no secret on the Canadian prairies. It should be noted that the child welfare system is big business in Canada. As it stands, there are more Indigenous children in the government’s care than there were at the height of Canada’s infamous residential school era. In fact, Saskatchewan hosted the last of the residential school closures as recently as 1996. Is sterilization the government’s attempt at addressing the very social conditions it has created over time? Is forced sterilization of Indigenous women the Canadian state’s most reasonable solution to a population living in enforced poverty?
The Canadian government, the province of Saskatchewan and the Saskatoon Health Region have remained complicit in yet another form of contemporary genocide under the guise of eugenic ideology. It has attempted the erasure of Indigenous motherhood and in turn has limited the growth of the Indigenous nation. In the House of Commons on Nov. 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the “coerced sterilization of some Indigenous women is a serious violation of human rights” and acknowledged the systemic discrimination and racism that Indigenous people face within the health care system. But at this time, the Liberal government has not taken concrete action as it continues to sidestep the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people it promised in its platform.
Sen. Boyer has called for a nationwide review; Lombard, the lawyer, has delivered her findings in Geneva to the U.N. Committee Against Torture. Before the lawsuit cases hit the courtroom in 2019, the physicians performing these procedures, as well as the nurses and social workers who are assisting by pressuring for consent, should be prevented from practicing medicine. All levels of government need to immediately address this issue and ban sterilization without free, prior and informed consent from each patient.
Forced, coerced or pressured sterilization of Indigenous women breaches the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ definition of “free, prior, and informed consent,” which in Canada is often cited in relation to land. It is important to note that in many Indigenous traditions, the land is viewed as mothering. The ravaging of the land and water in the name of colonization and capitalism has devastating effects on the living. It stunts our growth and, in some cases, our survival. This same lens can be used when understanding the damaging effects that sterilization can have on a woman physically.