Canada has to stop the “extensive forced or coerced sterilization” of Indigenous women and girls in Canada, the United Nations Committee Against Torture told the country on Friday, a finding that prompted calls for federal action by human-rights groups and the federal NDP.
All such allegations, incuding recent ones in Saskatchewan, must be impartially investigated and that those responsible are held to account, the Geneva-based committee said, and the state needs to take legislative and policy measures to stop women from being sterilized against their will.
The conclusions confirm Canada is torturing Indigenous women through forced sterilization, NDP MP Rachel Blaney said in the House of Commons.
“Do the Liberals not understand that this is a stain on our country, a stain on every one of us in this House?” she said during question period. “Why are the Liberals tolerating forced sterilization of Indigenous women?”
Prior to the release of the report, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s office said the government is taking a “public-health approach” to the issue, though the government believes everyone must receive culturally safe health services no matter where they live.
Wilson-Raybould’s parliamentary secretary Arif Virani reiterated that message as he answered Blaney’s question.
“The coerced sterilization of Indigenous women is a serious violation of human rights and it is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Outside the Commons, Amnesty International Canada’s gender-rights campaigner Jackie Hansen insisted that the federal government needs to take more concrete steps than condemnation.
“I think what everyone wants to see is this practice ended,” she told a news conference on Parliament Hill. “What we want to see is a firm commitment from government to demonstrate how that is going to happen.”
Hansen’s organization has called on the federal government to appoint a special representative to hear from Indigenous women coerced into being sterilized to learn what justice would look like for survivors.
The UN committee’s report speaks to the lack of action, Hansen added.
“We really look forward to Canada’s response to how it is going to implement the strong recommendations issued by the committee against torture,” she said. “It is clear that there is stigma, there is shame around this issue and very difficult for women to come forward and report what has happened to them.”
Indigenous women and girls deserve the same level of respect as anyone else when they receive medical services, said Native Women’s Association president Francyne Joe.
“To engage in an invasive, medically unnecessary surgery without one’s free, full and informed consent is a very serious violation of a person’s right to bodily integrity,” she said. “The Canadian medical profession must respect consent and the Canadian government must defend consent.”
Ottawa plans to engage “shortly” with the provinces and territories, health educators, associations of health professionals and Indigenous partners to examine next steps, said the offices of Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor.
“Our government has received the UN committee’s concluding observations, and will be reviewing the recommendations,” a joint statement said. “Coerced sterilization is a form of gender-based violence, it is a violation of human rights and a violation of medical ethics.”
A proposed class-action lawsuit led by lawyer Alisa Lombard and her firm Maurice Law is also underway, targeting the Saskatoon Health Authority, the Saskatchewan government, the federal government and a handful of medical professionals as defendants.
More women have disclosed their experience with coerced sterilization as media coverage on the issue has continued, Hansen said.
About 100 women have now come forward to report they have been forcibly sterilized, Lombard said - a jump of 40 women since The Canadian Press published a story in November detailing a push from Ontario Sen. Yvonne Boyer to study the issue nationally.
Boyer and Philpott met this week to discuss the issue.
On Thursday, chiefs in Ottawa at a special meeting of the Assembly of First Nations also passed a resolution to reiterate their support for efforts to raise awareness on forced sterilizations and to stop the practice.
The resolution also directed the organization to support the lawsuit claimants and to advocate for changes to the Criminal Code to criminalize forced sterilization in Canada.
Wilson-Raybould’s office has pointed to existing provisions within the code meant to forbid “a range of criminal behaviour” that would cover forced sterilizations, including on aggravated assault and on terminating pregnancies against expectant mothers’ wishes.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde urged Wilson-Raybould on Friday to consider changing the law and stressed the importance of a full examination of the scope of the issue.
There must also be redress for victims, Bellegarde said.
“Forced sterilization is a gross violation of human rights and First Nation rights and it must be criminalized to help bring an end to this inhumane practice,” he said in a statement. “We need to implement the recommendations by the United Nations to stop this, and we need justice for the victims of this immoral practice.”