An Act of Genocide: Canada’s Coerced Sterilization of First Nations Women
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An Act of Genocide: Canada’s Coerced Sterilization of First Nations Women

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November 15, 2018

Canada’s role in the forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women has only recently begun to emerge within a more complete and historical context. As researchers continue to dig through historical records to examine the extent to which First Nations women were sterilized without their informed consent since confederation, a new Saskatchewan lawsuit has opened another chapter to this shocking legacy, garnering at least 60 additional reports in its wake—at least one verified case occurring as recent as 2017.

With Ontario Senator Yvonne Boyer now calling for a nationwide review of the sterilization of First Nations women in her first address to the Senate upper chamber, it is important to reorient this struggle as the current and timely issue it continues to be.

Boyer, a Métis lawyer and former nurse, recently referred to coerced and forced tubal ligations as being among the “most heinous” practices seemingly still ubiquitous across Canada. Again, Boyer prioritized this issue in her first address to the upper chamber of the Senate.

Alisa Lombard, an attorney from the first Indigenous-owned national law firm in Canada—Maurice Law—is leading the suit against the physicians involved, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the entire province of Saskatchewan; as well as, the Government of Canada.

While the lawsuit is being waged by two Saskatchewan women, responses from other women in their community describing similar experiences quickly ballooned to at least 60. There are also reports of the same atrocities still happening in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario.. The most recent confirmed case in Manitoba took place  in 2009. Lombard alleges that ‘suggestions’ for tubal ligations are often if not routinely introduced while women are actively in labor, under anesthesia, or about to go under anesthesia (i.e. potentially in debilitating pain or already under the influence of doctor-administered drugs).

The Saskatchewan Health Authority apologized in 2017 for their role in forced sterilizations on First Nations women, and admitted they had “much work to do” in addressing related systemic issues—at which time Healther Bear, a vice chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations described these experiences as “horrendous and disturbing”.

Current Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott described the ongoing issue as a “serious violation of human rights”, this week, and, determined that, “We all have a role to play to ensure that Indigenous patients receive quality healthcare free of prejudice, including ensuring medical professionals receive cultural safety training, as laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action”.

While current attention must be galvanized to bring an end to this horrifying practice, it is crucial to understand the history—and, the eugenics era thinking—from which these abusive practices originated.

In 2015, IC spoke with Dr. Karen Stote, professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and author of An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, to understand the history of forced sterilization in the Canadian context.

Stote commented plainly that, “The coercive sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada is genocide proper.” Her distinction alludes to the alternative phrasing of ‘cultural genocide’, a semantic preferred by judges, policy makers and other Canadian officials when referencing the plight of Canada’s First Nations.

Stote elaborated that, “…imposing measures to prevent births within a group, when done to undermine the ability of a group to continue to exist, is an act of genocide”. The crime is fully realized “…when [this] coercive sterilization is understood within the larger context of colonialism, as one of many policies/practices imposed on Indigenous peoples that allows the increasing encroachment of Indigenous lands and the reduction of the number of those to whom the federal government has obligations”.

Dr. Kim Anderson, Cree/Métis writer and fellow Wilfrid Laurier professor who specializes in community engaged research in Indigenous communities, supported Dr. Stote’s statement in a phone conversation with IC. “Genocide is the term for [these] systematic strategies. The ultimate end of sterilization is that people are unable to have children and that’s genocide.”

Anderson spoke of the many stories emerging from inside her own personal network of First Nations women today, stories detailing events that took place in Canada as recently as the 1960’s and 1970’s. She went on to contextualize them in reference to a larger, more compounded strategy of genocide on Canada’s First Nations’ families. Rather systematic in approach, attacks against Indigenous family structure and even more specifically, “Indigenous mothering”, have been methodically inflicted going back to first contact. Anderson painted a picture of deep sociocultural wounds from strategic attacks that pierced  the most sacred parts of Indigenous life; she described how this frightening history of oppression and abuse made the sterilization era all the more traumatic, in the context of Canada’s greater colonial grand strategy.

A universal legal definition of genocide was outlined in Articles II and III of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1948. According to Article II, the two main elements of genocide are the ‘mental’ and the ‘physical’. The mental element considers the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”

The physical element is itemized into five parts: killing members of the aforementioned group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to group members of the aforementioned group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to group members; “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”; “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”; and, “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

These criteria are what Stote refers to when she describes Canada’s handling of its First Nations residents as “genocide proper.” Perhaps a more palatable term to some, cultural genocide has made its way into the larger conversation; its presence there nuanced in a manner that is alternately valuable and distracting.

The terminology of ‘cultural genocide’ is currently used by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a description of Canada’s policies of forced removal and residential schools. In relation to this – and to how much work really does still need to be done to address Canada’s colonial legacy – Anderson was quick to point out a disturbing statistic: there are more First Nations children in the Canadian welfare system now, than were removed to residential schools in the previous era.

Though care must be taken to prevent a battle of semantics from overshadowing these very real and very current issues, there are times when these nuances do matter;  even more if they play host to evasion strategies of the hegemonic variety. One of the themes Stote explores in her book is Canada’s role and responsibility – in collusion with other hegemonic, western interests operating at the “UN level” – for the deletion of the article on ‘cultural genocide’ from the 1948 Genocide Convention.

To be clear, Canada actually went as far as threatening to opt out of the entire Genocide Convention if it was included, and was a direct force in the collective opposition that culminated in its removal. Interestingly enough, the measure was supported by the entire Soviet Bloc, while its critics – other than Canada – included the U.S. and most of Western Europe. There were two notable environmental factors contextualizing this sequence of events.

First of all, these circumstances were unfolding in the wake of Hitler’s genocide in Germany; and protections geared specifically at ‘culture’ were presented as superficial in comparison. Secondly, it was all taking place on the cusp of the McCarthy era. It is conceivable that western interests were preemptively protecting other systematic strategies that were being developed – and executed – to target communist, or otherwise political groups, from appearing on the radar of Convention upholders. In any event, the terminology was omitted and with it, the legitimacy of ‘cultural genocide’ under international law. The terminology was revived  in 2007 as part of  the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but was again ultimately excluded in favor of the more succinct expression of, ‘genocide’.

The practices of coerced and forced sterilizations of Indigenous women – and men – must also be understood in the context of both what appears to be this large scale appeal for genocidal impunity, and as well within the violations of basic consent. The American Bar Association outlines a complex set of standards regarding a ward of the system’s ability to give consent in terms of biomedical practices and research.  Indigenous peoples in some contexts – trapped in the cyclical patterns of settler violence and imperialistic intrusion upon their lives and culture – especially historically, were definitively unable to give legal consent, even when consent was sought – be it under the most pretentious of terms considering Indigenous peoples were veritable prisoners of war at this point in Canada’s history. Accordingly, an examination of historical documents by Stote revealed “problems: such as a lack of interpreters, … a lack of informed consent, [or] consent forms not being translated into the languages spoken by Indigenous peoples.”

The extent to which Canada was coloring outside the ethical lines with their practices of forced sterilization is further realized in terms of another case in point. Stote related that,

The first high dose birth control pill was being prescribed in Indigenous communities, 1964-1965 at least,  before contraceptives were legalized for these purposes – in 1969 – with the intent to reduce the birth rate, and to “reduce the size of the homes the federal government would need to provide.

Considering the Catholic Church’s position on birth control, it might be assumed that their own activity in relation to Canada’s First Nations during this period would steer far and wide from the government’s unholy interventionism. It is therefore especially confusing that they actually worked in collusion with the Canadian government in terms of these methodical  strategies to wipe Canada’s First Nations off the face of the planet. This unholy alliance is perhaps most evident in Canada’s long-running policy of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes and families, and imprisoning them in residential Christian schools funded by the state. As detailed above, this practice stands on its own as a violation of the Geneva Convention, even after the phrasing ‘cultural genocide’ had been struck from the official document.

After a six year investigation, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission  concluded that:

The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their lands and resources. If every Aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic’, there would be no reserves, no treaties and no Aboriginal rights.

During a recent trip to Bolivia, Pope Francis issued an apology for the “sins” the Catholic Church committed against the Indigenous of Latin America. Members of Canada’s First Nations would undoubtedly be well served by a similar statement from the (if ambivalently) human rights-oriented Pope. Canadian First Nations organizers were disappointed that former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, did not issue a more direct appeal for an apology for the Church’s role in the residential schools when he met with the Pope recently. Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde strongly lamented that move (or lack of one) citing at the time:

Today would have been a powerful and appropriate day to issue that invitation and it would help survivors in their healing journey.

Enter in Justin Trudeau, Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Party, who quickly responded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s release of its final report detailing Canada’s history of residential schools on December 15, 2015. The report documents a horrific legacy of physical and sexual abuse that culminated in an official death toll of 3,200 — though Commission chairman, Justice Murray Sinclair, estimates the actual number to be much higher. Trudeau’s comments —  themselves a potential harbinger of a long awaited policy pivot — came after he met with leaders from 5 First Nations communities in Ottawa on December 16th.

To bring the discussion back to coerced and forced sterilization, it is important to note that these atrocities were certainly not limited to Canada. These ethical anomalies are well documented to have occurred in many other nation states as well, including the United States of America.

In 2000, the American Indian Quarterly journal published an article entitled, ‘The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women.’ Researchers concluded their assessment with encouraging news regarding more recent trends concerning Native autonomy in health care practices, but laced any implied optimism with a warning:

While the sterilizations that occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s harmed Native Americans, Indian participation in their own health care since 1976 has strengthened their tribal communities. Sterilization abuse has not been reported recently on the scale that occurred during the 1970’s, but the possibility still exists for it to occur.

To punctuate that ultimately prophetic statement is a much more recent case from Peru, in which around 350,000 women – the majority of whom were Indigenous Quechua, Aymara, Shipiba, or Ashaninkas – were coercively sterilized by a government health program under the administration of former President Alberto Fujimori. (Fujimori was later sentenced to 25 years in prison for grave human rights violations not directly related to sterilizations.)

The issue of consent loomed large in Peru as well. Sometimes the procedures were done completely in secret after childbirth, and sometimes the only form of consent was a waiver signed by a relative (disturbing, from a few angles, given the language barriers.) There were a number of factors that disabled proper consent protocol, and likewise a number of negative impacts women experienced in the aftermath.

Alejandra Ballón, who has written a book about the procedures in Peru under Fujimoto, noted that, “The women lost their strength and could no longer work as farmers, but also many were abandoned by their male partners, and forced to immigrate to the cities.” In November of 2015, a mobilization of about 80 Peruvian women – victims of these practices of forced sterilizations between 1996 and 2000 – took to the streets demanding justice.

It’s impossible to know if there are similar accounts of impact on the victims of forced sterilizations in Canada, because the necessary research has not been carried out. According to Anderson, this is what makes Stote’s ongoing work so important. She also points to the need to collect the stories of Canada’s First Nation eugenics-era survivors,  while they are still alive. She may even take on the latter task herself, having had a dream about it.

Anderson further contextualized Canada’s history of sterilizing its First Nations women as being spawned from this broader eugenics movement that was born out of the writings of Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin,  who coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883 . It was a movement, she points out, that Indigenous peoples were constantly targeted by.

Seven years before Nazi Germany passed the Nuremburg Race Laws that outlawed German Jews from having sexual or marital relations with anyone of German or mixed ancestry, Alberta passed ‘The Sexual Sterilization Act’ in 1928. The legislation outlined the conditions and procedures for sterilizing individuals who were deemed to have ‘undesirable traits.’ Five years later, in 1933, British Columbia passed a law of its own,  ‘An Act Respecting Sexual Sterilization’. Like its eastern counterpart, British Columbia’s legislation outlined the who, the where, and the how in regards to sterilization of those who  were considered wards of the state and possessed some sort of ‘undesirable trait’.

One has to wonder, as professor and Lakota-American, Dr. Lehman Brightman did during his historic speech at the end of ‘The Long Walk’ in 1978 (which followed the famous occupation of Alcatraz in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) if this ‘trait’ was in fact resource-rich land and unconquered territory. Brightman proclaimed, regarding Natives in the United States at that time:

We won’t have any need for reservations if we don’t stop the sterilization of our youth, and of our women, and of our men.

Even amidst the height of these draconian practices, most of the time the need for actual consent was at least legally recognized. In other words, it is possible that B.C. was breaking its own laws in regards to methods used to forcibly sterilize Canadian First Nations women.

Arizona State professor, Dr. Myla Vicenti Carpio, published an article in 2004 called, ‘The Lost Generation: American Indian Women and Sterilization Abuse’, in which she charges that:

The United States filters monies through agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID], the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation for population control programs. These agencies were responsible for the sterilization of men and women in regions such as Puerto Rico, Brazil, Guatemala, Africa, and Panama.

Exact figures are unattainable in terms of just how many Native Americans were sterilized in the U.S. during the 1970’s. Brightman, who devoted much of his life’s work to the issue, put his educated guess at about 40% of all Native American women alive at that time, and 10% of Native men. Brightman figured that the total number of Native women sterilized during that decade was between 60,000 and 70,000, and has labeled it “criminal negligence and criminal genocide.” Citing the language issues, among other issues related to consent, Brightman asserted: “They’ve sterilized all of our women by trickery, by fraud and by crook. They’ve asked them to sign consent forms that they couldn’t read, in English; they’ve sterilized them without telling them about it; and they’ve sterilized them by lying to them and telling them the operation was reversible.”

Documented survivor counts are accumulating among Canada’s First Nations community as well. According to Stote: “We know (according to other researchers, i.e., Christian, 1974 and Grekul, 2004) Indigenous peoples were targeted under Alberta’s eugenic legislation (1928-1972), making up 6-8% of those sterilized overall, despite only being about 3% of the population; although in later years (1969-1972), they made up over 25% of those sterilized.”

Stote’s own research – reviewing the first of three federal files she searched in all – uncovered sterilizations performed on Indigenous women at 14 different federally operated Indian Hospitals across Canada. Another set documented sterilizations on First Nations women from 32 different northern settlements; and, a third set detailed the experiences of women from the Baffin, Keewatin, Mackenzie, and Inuvik zones.

Unfortunately for Canada’s First Nations, neither sterilizations nor history are easily reversed; and as such, neither are the sustained impacts of the genocide of eugenics. One of the surest ways to make sure these tragedies of recent history are not repeated in the present or future, is to heed the call to aggregate and document the collective and individual stories and memories of Canada’s First Nations women who are still living with the effects.

In terms of relevance in modernity for Canada’s First Nations, Stote explained to IC that:

I think the discourse of blaming individuals for social problems, for the poverty conditions in which they live, and for having children they “can’t afford” is still very much with us. It is more cost effective to blame individuals, and to view them (or their reproduction) as the cause of their situation rather than examine the larger political, economic and social system in place that creates poverty, social problems, etc. And for Indigenous women in Canada, but many other places as well, it is conditions of colonialism and the failure of the federal government (settler population in general) to uphold obligations to Indigenous peoples that is creating the marginalized status and poverty conditions in which Indigenous peoples are forced to live. These conditions of colonialism are ongoing.

Canada’s legacy of forced sterilization is similarly ongoing. In 2015, several First Nations women began coming forward to say that they had been sterilized against their will. One of these women, Melika Popp, told reporters that she was sterilized after the delivery of her first child, and was assured the process was reversible. “I felt very targeted. It was under duress. I was definitely hormonal at that time,” she commented.

For more recent survivors like Popp, the struggle to come to terms with ongoing impacts has only just begun. Others have been carrying these burdens for decades without a platform on which to speak out. In terms of what it will take to jumpstart the healing process for all, thus allowing Canada’s victims, their families, and their communities to move forward, Anderson had some words:

Story-telling and testimonial can be a healing process for people, to [realize] that their voice and their story is heard. In general, North Americans are really uninformed about Indigenous history on the continent and the brutality that was involved, and maybe are resistant to learning about that because it triggers all sorts of other feelings, like white guilt, but the only way to go forward is to work with the truth. It is also important to talk about it within the framework of assessing the family breakdown. Family is so important to Indigenous cultures…the attack therefore has been so devastating…recognizing and naming this is a significant form of healing.

According to recent reports, a surprising leader in the race to make amends on issues of forced and coerced sterilizations is the southeastern state of North Carolina. North Carolina announced their intentions to be the first state to financially compensate victims of its particularly aggressive sterilization programs, in early 2012. Estimates cite that North Carolina alone sterilized 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974. Out of 768 claims made, 220 living victims were designated to receive checks of $20,000 each. Under the compensation policy, the sterilizations had to have taken place under the state’s Eugenics Board; unfortunately, various judges and social service workers were apparently ‘greenlighting’ them off the books as well.

Stote also weighed in with some insight about how Canadians can move forward as a whole on the trajectory towards justice and healing.

On an individual basis, I think those on whom these injustices were perpetrated should be asked about what needs to be done. Gathering the details of what happened, when, on whom, and under what conditions, would be made much easier if there was an honest and forthcoming attempt to, at the very least, acknowledge [that] this type of thing happened to Indigenous peoples in Canada. More broadly, I have consistently heard and seen Indigenous peoples struggling for the right to self-determination as peoples, to have their ways of life respected, their bodies respected, and to have settlers uphold their end of the original responsibilities and relationships that were laid out between them and Indigenous peoples. So, I see that as a great place to start. I think this will require Canadians to really take the initiative in learning our history, and to challenge those we have been allowing to make decisions on our behalf. This will ultimately need to include a restructuring of our social, political and economic life in Canada.

Keri Cheechoo, a Cree woman from the community of Long Lake #58 First Nation, and a PhD. Candidate at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, offered some final thoughts in a statement to IC:

As peculiar as it sounds, I awoke at about three in the morning with two words swirling in my mind: forced sterilizations. I scribbled them down on the back of a receipt and went back to sleep. The next day I began reading and engaging in dialogue with those both close to me, and in the Academy, and I began to realize that the scope of forced or coerced sterilizations in Indigenous women is both appallingly enormous and disturbingly concealed.

It is my opinion that forced or coerced sterilization is an act of violence on Indigenous women. The colonial agenda of genocide that was endorsed in the form of forced or coerced sterilization of Indigenous women contributed directly to the colonization of the land. Indigenous women are conduits, we are connected to the land in an esoteric way, and a permanent loss of reproduction and reproduction rights directly impacts our capacity to inhabit or to disrupt attempts at land theft.

I think it is important that the Canadian federal government endorse the 41st Call to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report, which indicates: “We call upon the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal organizations, to appoint a public inquiry into the causes of, and remedies for, the disproportionate victimization of Aboriginal women and girls. The inquiry’s mandate would include: i. Investigation into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls; [and] ii. Links to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, 2015, p. 4)

It is my growing belief that it is vital that this piece of hidden Canadian history be exposed, and that mainstream Canada become educated on the historical trauma of forced or coerced sterilizations on Indigenous women.

Author’s note

Special thanks to Dr. Karen Stote, Dr. Kim Anderson, Quanah Parker Brightman, and Keri Cheechoo for their vital input and support.

It is in a spirit of enormous respect, that IC expresses deep condolences to the family of Dr. Lehman L. Brightman, who passed away on Father’s Day with his son Quanah by his side, in June of 2017 (after this original article was published).
Words cannot sufficiently describe Dr. Brightman’s contributions to, and central position within, the struggle to document, advocate for, and address the critical and genocidal implications of forced and coerced sterilizations on Indigenous women.
Enormous thanks to Quanah Parker Brightman for his dedication to preserving his father’s legacy of having led ‘The Longest Walk — Dr. Brightman specifically addressed the nation on the genocidal nature of forced and coerced sterilizations of Native women in his speech at its culmination on the steps of the Capitol Building in 1978.

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