A group of Indigenous researchers and women’s associations across Quebec are encouraging people to come forward to shed light on the long-hidden practice of forced sterilization.
Quebec was the only province to refuse to participate in a federal investigation into the issue in 2018, but recent revelations on Radio-Canada’s Enquête program has made it impossible for the Legault government to deny the practice exists here.
There are numerous reports of Indigenous women across Canada receiving tubal ligations after giving birth – making them permanently unable to bear more children – without their full and informed consent.
The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) and the Cree Health Board are partners in a regional committee that began to research this practice last May. Testimonies will be collected until this winter by Louise Saganash in the inland communities and Janie Pachano in the coastal communities.
“Some are forced to get sterilized, some are convinced out of fear,” said Pachano in a CWEIA informational video. “They are told you have too many children; if you do not agree to sterilization, your children will be taken away. Some women were not even informed that this procedure was done on them and the lasting results.”
Pachano added that some women don’t even realize they have been sterilized until they wake from sedation after surgery or until further medical visits. In some cases, doctors have used inappropriate language, touching, or intimidation to force women to undergo a medically unnecessary procedure.
Although imposed sterilization is a longstanding human rights abuse that has impacted countless women and men across the world, Karen Stote’s research in 2015 demonstrated that thousands of First Nations and Inuit women in Canada had been and are still being victimized.
In fact, until the early 1970s, laws in Alberta and British Columbia required the forced sterilization of people considered “mentally defective”, most often forced on Indigenous peoples and other minorities. These laws were connected to eugenics ideologies, which sought to repress the reproduction of races deemed undesirable.
Suzy Basile teaches Indigenous women’s issues at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue and is spearheading the current study. While the federal government began looking into the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in 2019, Basile says that there is still “a glaring lack of relevant data on this topic in Quebec.”
The university is collecting confidential testimonies along with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission (FNQLHSSC) and other partners. Following denial and inaction by the provincial government, these organizations launched an awareness and research campaign.
“When we come out with our report, it will include recommendations for the different [medical] orders,” said FNQLHSSC executive director Marjolaine Siouï. “It’s traumatic – some didn’t even know it happened to them. We want to make sure that, in the future, women have the necessary support to file a complaint and they’re not rushed to make a decision.”
The research project is highlighting reasons that forced sterilization may have been conducted and identifies specific physicians or regions associated with the practice.
Researchers are making the testimonial process culturally safe for women who come forward while organizations provide psychosocial support. Former CWEIA chairperson Stella Masty Bearskin said the project also wants to hear from men who may have been victims as she has heard stories of residential schools sterilizing young boys.
“We have women coming forward,” Siouï told the Nation. “Some family members come forward for someone. We can say the trend from the testimonies we have received resembles very closely the kind of circumstances reported from Indigenous women in other provinces.”
In some cases, doctors justify a sterilization by presuming the woman is unfit to be a parent. Similar paternalistic attitudes have resulted in birth alerts, an often-discriminatory practice in which newborns are apprehended because social workers feel the parent will put them at risk.
“It’s still happening in Quebec,” said Siouï of the latter practice. “They don’t necessarily have that reflex to call in-community prevention services. The family, extended family or community services should come first to keep the child within its own environment.”
Siouï hopes the report’s recommendations end this systemic discrimination by creating awareness among medical professionals about diverse cultural realities and a woman’s right to choice. While sterilization can limit health risks in certain situations, she said women need time to reflect on this decision with professional guidance.
“Risks to your health need to be well explained,” Siouï said. “It’s not good if you’re being pressured because you don’t want to bring back someone because it will be costly to the system. We want to make sure any person has all the access to information so they can make a sound decision.”
While she acknowledges many women feel scared to come forward, confronting this wall of silence is giving them a voice and promoting the healing process. Women may also choose to join one of the class action lawsuits across the country.
“We’ve seen with residential schools, people kept that inside of them as a secret because it was shameful, hard and affected them so deeply,” asserted Siouï. “When we come forward, we’re helping other sisters to change what’s been done wrong for many years. You’re part of a movement to change things around you so those who follow us in our steps will feel safe.”
If you or you know someone who underwent a forced sterilization, you can participate in this research by contacting Vincent Georgekish at CWEIA or visiting the website.
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter