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Feds must act to end the forced sterilization of Indigenous people

Although official policies have been repealed, the genocidal practice continues to this day

Indigenous PoliticsHuman RightsFeminism

“Debwe,” led by Mushkiiki Nibi Kwe (Lindsey Lickers) with artists Leah Roberts, Maybella King Reynolds, and Shaneixqui Brown, forms part of the art installation Red Embers, now on display in Ashbridges Bay Park, Toronto.

Since 2019, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights has been conducting “a study on the extent and scope of forced and coerced sterilization of persons in Canada,” the findings of which were compiled in a report released on July 14, 2022.

Sterilization, or the permanent prevention of contraception by surgical means, is performed on hundreds of thousands of people annually, and according to Canadian and international law, the surgeon must acquire the “free and informed consent” of the patient before beginning the procedure. Forced sterilization occurs when a person has explicitly refused the procedure or has been subjected to the procedure without their knowledge. Coerced sterilization is when people are intimidated into undergoing the surgery or when they consent on the basis of incorrect information.

The Standing Committee report explicates a reality that Indigenous communities already know and suffer through: in the 1920s, official policies of forced sterilization were administered across Canada, and although these policies have been repealed, the genocidal practice continues to this day in a colonial health care system that already pathologizes Indigenous peoples in a way that other groups simply do not have to endure.

In the early twentieth century, numerous Canadian provinces passed laws intended to forcibly limit the birth rate of Indigenous peoples residing within the fledging nation’s borders, an act of genocide according to the UN definition of the term. “Through settler colonial policies” such as these, write Chaneesa Ryan, Abrar Ali, and Christine Shawana, “Indigenous populations in Canada have been targeted by various assimilation policies and practices including, among others, the Indian Act, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop.” Forced and coerced sterilization, they explain, “continues the history of colonization and is designed to control and/or eliminate a population.”

Between 2015 and 2019, over 100 Indigenous women from Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario, and Québec publicly asserted that they were survivors of forced or coerced sterilization procedures. The actual number is undoubtedly much higher, and more and more Indigenous women come forward every year to share their traumatic experiences. One study found that 26 percent of Inuit women between the ages of 30 and 50 in the town of Igloolik, Nunavut were sterilized against their will.

Following allegations of forced sterilization in Saskatchewan health care facilities, the Saskatoon Health Authority commissioned an independent review by Senator Yvonne Boyer and Dr. Judith Bartlett. In 2017, they wrote that “the sterilization legislation legacy remains intact through imprints in not only Saskatchewan but all of Canada’s health care system.” The cases they examined revealed that many Indigenous women were not told about other birth control options, were pressured or threatened into undergoing sterilization procedures, or were subjected to sterilization after expressly refusing to sign consent forms.

“Racism is a determinant of health,” Boyer and Bartlett concluded, adding that “some governments imposed policies and laws geared toward sterilizing [Indigenous] women… In addition to gender bias, it is well documented that systemic discrimination and racism in health care exists. Decades and generations of [Indigenous] people affected are accordingly distrustful of this system.”

The recent report by the Standing Committee highlights the fact that, from the early twentieth century to the present, forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous peoples and other oppressed groups has occurred as a result of official government policies, systemic discrimination in health care institutions, and the overall “sociocultural context” of the victimized individuals. The report’s authors found that:

While the available record indicates that First Nations, Métis and Inuit women have disproportionately been the target of policies of forced and coerced sterilization, the Committee heard that other vulnerable groups have also been disproportionately subjected to these procedures, including Black and racialized women, persons with disabilities, intersex children and institutionalized persons.


The authors note that the United Nations Committee against Torture, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and two UN Special Rapporteurs have urged Canada to implement concrete measures to end the forced sterilization of Indigenous peoples by any means necessary—an urgency that is not present in any of the Canadian government’s responses to this ongoing crisis.

In December 2018, the UN Committee against Torture called on Canada to institute numerous measures to end forced sterilization of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, emphasizing the need to “[e]nsure that all allegations of forced or coerced sterilization are impartially investigated, that the persons responsible are held accountable and that adequate redress is provided to the victims.” The UN also called on the Canadian government to “adopt legislative and policy measures to prevent and criminalize the forced or coerced sterilization of women.”

The next year, a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged Canada to “to guarantee effective access to justice for survivors and their families, to conduct impartial and immediate investigations, to hold those responsible to account and to take all of the necessary measures to put an end to the practice of sterilizing women against their will.”

In other words, both the UN and the IACHR openly implored the Canadian government to do everything within its power to bring an end to these genocidal actions. Nevertheless, forced and coerced sterilizations continue in Canada, with minimal action from the federal government. The authors of the July 14 report are only able to note four actions taken by the government to address this crisis since 2019: Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) established an Advisory Committee on Indigenous Women’s Wellbeing; ISC helped convene a forum on “Culturally Informed Choice and Consent in Indigenous Women’s Health”; the Government of Canada held three “national dialogues” on anti-Indigenous racism in Canadian health care systems; and Budget 2021 allocated $33.3 million “to expand support for Indigenous midwifery and doula initiatives.”

In other areas, however, Ottawa has evinced nowhere near the same hesitation. For instance, the disparity between the lack of urgency regarding genocidal sterilization practices and the feverish intensity with which the federal government is expanding its international military presence is clear. For example, Budget 2022 includes $6.1 billion for the expansion of the Canadian military and a potential $2.8 billion in “lethal and non-lethal aid to support Ukraine’s heroic defence” against Russia. In the face of this gargantuan funding gap, one can hardly claim that Canada is following the UN and IACHR recommendation to “take all of the necessary measures” to end forced and coerced sterilization.

While refusing to take sufficient action about forced sterilization within its own borders, the Canadian government has been breathless in its criticism of China regarding allegations of forced sterilization against Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in the country’s west. In fact, Ottawa claims to have “raised the issue [of forced sterilization] with Chinese authorities” and “consistently voiced its deep concern” over the accusations “in international forums in cooperation with partners, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council.” The Trudeau government has even applied economic sanctions against China because of, in the Government of Canada’s words, allegations pertaining to “forced medical procedures absent the patient’s consent, including forced sterilization.” This undeniably dishonest behaviour is one of myriad reasons why the Canadian government should not be afforded any of the respect it claims to command on the global stage.

In their article for the International Journal of Indigenous Health, Chaneesa Ryan, Abrar Ali, and Christine Shawana explain that “Sterilizing Indigenous women against their will violates their rights to equality, nondiscrimination, physical integrity, health, and security, and constitutes an act of genocide, violence, and torture against women” according to Canadian and international law. “Additionally,” they continue:

women who have been impacted by forced or coerced sterilization have experienced various physical and emotional symptoms, including pain, tissue scarring, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, social isolation, loss of identity and self-worth, distrust in the health care system, and fear of authority… This in turn leads to a hesitancy to seek medical care, increasing women’s vulnerability to preventable and treatable medical conditions.


Some survivors of forced sterilization have died by suicide. A woman named Pam (who withheld her surname out of fear of “further harming her family”), stated that her daughter committed suicide ten months after being forcibly sterilized at a Winnipeg hospital in 2009. There have also been reports of doctors telling pregnant Indigenous people that they will only be able to reclaim their children from foster care if they undergo abortions.

“Their social worker is giving them instructions to abort their baby in exchange for being able to get their children back or get more access to their children,” explained Cora Morgan, a family advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “They’re basically blackmailing [Indigenous] women into having abortions.”

Despite these appalling realities, forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous people is not actually illegal in Canada, and no doctor has ever been prosecuted for the act. It was only in July 2022, after years of urging by Indigenous people, activists, the UN, and the IACHR, that the Senate recommended “legislation be introduced to add a specific offence to the Criminal Code prohibiting forced and coerced sterilization.”

This recommendation echoes that of Senator Yvonne Boyer, who introduced a bill to criminalize forced sterilization into the Senate the previous month. During the proceedings, Boyer read a statement from an Indigenous woman in Alberta who was coerced into sterilization. “I’ve been attacked by a system that wished harm on the continuance of my family and ancestral lineage,” the statement read. “It’s simply genocide.”

Neither the Standing Committee’s recommendation nor Boyer’s bill have yet been codified into law. The law’s codification, and indeed its subsequent enforcement, will require the federal and provincial governments to take the immediate, decisive actions that they have so far spurned in the midst of these ongoing nationwide atrocities.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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