A Commons committee will hear Thursday afternoon from senior government officials about the coerced sterilization of women in Canada as MPs face increasing calls for a deeper study of the issue.
A close examination of the issue is required, NDP health critic Don Davies said ahead of the meeting as he warned Canada is at the “very cusp” of uncovering serious human-rights abuses affecting vulnerable women including those who are Indigenous, those living with disabilities, and those who have low incomes.
“There are very few things that are as profoundly a part of a person’s individual liberty as control over their reproduction and the choice of whether or not to have children,” he said in an interview.
“When that is taken away from someone in a very vulnerable position, without their consent, permanently, I think that’s a violation of a particularly fundamental and heinous nature.”
The Commons health committee is to question officials from three federal departments on the issue, but no further meetings on the topic have been scheduled.
Davies said he brought motions proposing a study of the issue and to hear testimony from Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor but neither passed the committee.
In December, then Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott and Petitpas Taylor wrote a letter to the provinces, territories and members of the medical community proposing a working group to examine the issue of cultural competency in health and citing reports on coerced sterilization in Canada.
The letter came after the United Nations Committee Against Torture told Canada to stop the “extensive forced or coerced sterilization” of Indigenous women and girls – a finding that prompted calls for federal action by human-rights groups and Davies’ party.
Sarah Kennell, the director of government relations for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said the issue needs to move away from whether doctors and other health workers understand Indigenous people to the issue of consent.
“We know this is a violation of the right to health and a woman’s right to receive consent-based services,” she said.
The UN Committee Against Torture told Canada it had a year to report on progress on coerced sterilization of Indigenous women, she said, adding that the committee hearing is welcome but a mere first step that will not lead to concrete action.
“That’s why a study or a committee needs to be formed to further investigate this,” she said.
Kennell’s organization and Amnesty International Canada have been pushing for an immediate and longer-term study of sterilization without consent.
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The Saskatoon Health Authority publicly apologized in 2017 after Indigenous women came forward to say they were coerced into tubal ligations.
A proposed class-action lawsuit was subsequently filed against the province of Saskatchewan, the federal government, regional health authorities, and individual doctors over allegations of forced sterilization of women in the province.
Last fall, the firm leading the case said 100 women have now come forward to report they have been forcibly sterilized, noting there was a jump of around 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 has also requested a examination be conducted by the Senate human-rights committee.
“Whoever within Parliament is able to do that study, I think it will be welcomed,” said Jackie Hansen, Amnesty’s gender-rights campaigner.
“There is such a need to have a really deep look into how this practice has continued and what needs to be done to stop it and what sort of justice the women impacted and their families want to see.”