The Senate’s human rights committee has heard this week from several Indigenous women who say they were coerced into receiving sterilization procedures after giving birth at hospitals, a problem advocates say is well known enough that it has made others reluctant to seek medical care.
Among the survivors of the procedures who spoke before the committee were two of three lead plaintiffs in a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of Indigenous women who say they were forcibly sterilized in Saskatchewan. The procedures permanently prevent conception.
One of the plaintiffs, a 49-year-old Cree woman named Sylvia Tuckanow, told the committee this week that she was sterilized against her will after giving birth in July, 2001, in Saskatoon.
Ms. Tuckanow said she did not sign a consent form, and that after her sterilization, she felt like she was not a “complete woman.”
“I kept crying,” she said. “I was hyperventilating because of the position I was in on that bed. My head was positioned lower than my body and they tied me down to the bed. I also could smell something burning.”
Another of the plaintiffs, Melika Popp, said she was coerced into being sterilized in 2008. She told the committee the practice is “nothing short of genocide.”
Parliamentarians have previously heard expert testimony on forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women. In 2019, the Senate human rights committee began a study that involved input from a variety of witnesses, including leaders of Indigenous organizations, researchers, representatives of civil society groups and government departments.
The committee issued a report in 2021 that said the prevalence of forced sterilization is both underreported and underestimated. The report also said the committee was deeply concerned that vulnerable and marginalized groups other than Indigenous women have been affected, such as women with disabilities and women in institutions.
This week’s testimony from Indigenous women is part of the latest phase of the committee’s study, which involves speaking directly to survivors.
Senator Yvonne Boyer, who sits on the human rights committee and is a former nurse, lawyer and professor, said in an interview that it is critical for senators to hear directly from those who have been sterilized.
“We need to ask them, ‘What do you need?” she said.
Nicole Rabbit told the committee this week that she was 28 years old when she was coerced into a sterilization procedure in 2001, after her fourth child was born through a cesarean section in Saskatoon.
She said a nurse told her that it was in her best interest for her fallopian tubes to be tied. Ms. Rabbit told the committee she was led to believe the procedure would be reversible, when in fact it was not.
“I had no time to think, and I couldn’t think clearly,” she said. “I was coerced into deciding – still being fully exposed, my abdomen still open from the C-section, my arms still tied down and numb. I felt pressured to say yes. Moments later, I could smell something burning, and thought: ‘Did they just burn my tubes?’ ”
Ms. Rabbit told the committee she felt like her womanhood had been taken away. She said she wanted to share her testimony so that others would feel encouraged to share their experiences.
Alisa Lombard, a lawyer who is representing the women in the proposed class action lawsuit, recently told senators little has changed for her clients in the three years since she last appeared before the committee. Ms. Lombard said the pandemic has exacerbated trepidation her clients experience when they interact with the health care system. She added that she continues to hear stories from women in every province who were affected by coerced sterilization.
Dr. Unjali Malhotra, the medical director of women’s health for the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia, told the committee recently that, as a physician and administrator, she regularly encounters women who would rather not access care than face the possibility of coercion.
“Imagine not wanting to deliver your baby in a health care facility, as you can’t ensure you won’t be sterilized if you don’t understand the forms you’re asked to sign, have a strong advocate and have a health care team by your side,” Dr. Malhotra said.
In June 2019, the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls said in its final report that sterilization represents “directed state violence” and contributes to the “dehumanization and objectification” of Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people. The report also said Indigenous women across the country tell stories of coerced sterilization, “even today.”
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