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Senate committee on Human Rights committee member Senator Yvonne Boyer responds to a question from the media during a news conference in Ottawa on July 14.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A Senate committee is calling for the criminalization of forced and coerced sterilization, after emotional testimony of nine people who described being subjected to sterilization procedures without their consent.

The survivors described being misinformed about the reversibility of sterilization, being compelled to make a decision in moments of extreme stress and disorientation, and in some cases, not being asked about the procedure at all prior to it being performed.

In a report released Thursday, the standing Senate committee on human rights made 13 recommendations aimed at ending forced sterilizations in Canada and compensating those who have been sterilized against their will. The procedures permanently prevent conception.

The report focuses on the experiences of Indigenous and Black women, who have long been subject to systemic discrimination in the Canadian health care system, including through racist and paternalist attitudes.

Women’s rights are under attack. But that was already the case for Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada

‘I felt pressured to say yes’: Indigenous women tell Senate committee they were coerced into sterilizations after giving birth

In recent years, reports of Indigenous women being forced or coerced into sterilization have become more widely known, with survivors speaking to media and joining a class action, though the exact number of those affected remains murky.

“I believe there’s sterilizations happening today, as we speak, the calls that I get in my office tell me that – that women are still being coerced into sterilization,” said Senator Yvonne Boyer, who is a member of the committee and has advocated extensively on the issue. “What we’ve seen up to date really hasn’t worked.”

The report’s first recommendation – “to add a specific offence to the Criminal Code prohibiting forced and coerced sterilization” – has been addressed in a bill by Ms. Boyer, S-250, which was introduced in June.

At a press conference on Thursday, Ms. Boyer said that the bill was a direct response to calls heard during the committee’s study, which began looking into the issue in 2019 and released an initial report last year.

Ms. Boyer said that survivors have long pressed to see forced and coerced sterilizations criminalized, and while she was initially reluctant, given that the criminal justice system has “not been kind to Indigenous people … I’m at that point where I think we have to do something.” She said discussions with ministers over the bill are beginning this summer, including with Justice Minister David Lametti.

The report also calls on the federal government to make a formal apology to those who have been sterilized against their will and develop a compensation framework for survivors.

Senator Michèle Audette, who sat on the committee until last month, said that she expects as more women hear about these conversations, more will come forward.

“There are many stories that haven’t reached us yet, so we have to remember that,” she said. “I have a strong feeling that the numbers will, sadly to say, increase.”

At the press conference, Ms. Boyer read out a statement from one of the women who testified before the committee, Nicole Rabbit, a First Nations woman from the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta.

“I am speaking for myself, however, my mother, too, was coerced into being sterilized,” Ms. Rabbit’s statement read. “I’ve been attacked by a system that wished harm on the continuance of my family and ancestral lineage. It’s simply genocide.”

Testifying before the committee in May, Ms. Rabbit described being coerced into having her tubes tied during a cesarean section in 2001 in Saskatoon.

“I asked if it was reversible. [The nurse] said yes,” 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.”

Another First Nations woman, who was not identified during the committee hearings, testified that in 2018, doctors raised the idea of tubal ligation with her ahead of an emergency C-section for her distressed baby. It had not been something they’d discussed before.

“I felt like the life of my unborn child was in my hands if I didn’t sign the documents fast enough,” she told the committee. “Thinking about the sterilization, I still feel heartbroken about it and probably will for a long time.”

Now 28, the woman and her partner are trying to save for a fertility procedure that may allow her to have another child, but she added, “IVF and those kinds of things are expensive.”

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