A Senate committee is getting set to investigate the forced sterilization of Indigenous women but the RCMP says a preliminary review of a complaint filed with them on the issue has not identified anything.
The committee will start its work on Wednesday.
At the moment, a class action lawsuit is being put together in Saskatchewan where a number of women were sterilized against their will.
Senator Yvonne Boyer is the driving force behind the committee’s work.
She says her interest in the issue peaked by gossip in her own family about who had been sterilized and who hadn’t.
“Nothing was ever really brought to the forefront so there was always something in the background of my thinking that this is something that needs to be talked about,” she told APTN News.
Boyer and Metis physician Dr. Judith Bartlett researched the issue a few years ago.
They found Indigenous women in the Saskatchewan health region who were often, without consent, sterilized for dubious reasons.
“Aren’t you on welfare? Don’t you think you should stop having children? It’s that judgement call and it’s for these reasons I’ve talked to you about,” she said.
“It’s the underlying assumption that this person seems to think they know better than I do on how many children I should have.”
Alisa Lombard is a Saskatchewan-based lawyer and will be the committee’s first witness.
She is heading up a class action lawsuit of women from Saskatchewan.
She does not believe women can give informed consent during child birth.
“It’s chaotic. It’s not a time where you can have these long, lengthy conversations about what you want to do for the rest of your life, or make any kind of permanent decisions in that regard,” she said.
“And you’re also in some of the most intense pain of your life.”
She has this piece of advice for these women.
“If they identify with this particular experience that they are net alone,” she said. “Many women have experienced the same thing.”
One of the goals of the Senate committee is to find out how many women were sterilized and where they were from.
Senator Kim Pate who advocates on behalf of people in prison, certainly wants some facts.
“It’s probably more prevalent than we know,” she said add that she’s heard anecdotes of women with mental health issues being sterilized.
“Went in for something whether it was a procedure and then they were sterilized in the process. And you know I would ask, is that what you went for? No, but I guess it’s okay and I guess I’m going to be so old when I get out of prison I won’t have children.”
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard chairs the human rights committee.
She says she knows of a community of African Nova Scotians where hysterectomies were performed.
“Many of them didn’t know why they had hysterectomies. In one family we found every women in the family, a mother and three or four of her daughters had all had hysterectomies.”
“We need to have a map on the wall. We need to have those pinpoints of where this is happening,” says Boyer. “And we need to have that evidence in front of us so we can take some action.”
Everyone interviewed agrees on one action since there is evidence the practice of coerced sterilizations still occurs.
The senate committee hopes to have four meetings before the end of June.
It would set the scope of a larger study to hopefully begin after the next election.
Preliminary search finds no reports of coerced sterilization to police: RCMP
The head of the RCMP says the police force is looking into whether any complaints about forced or coerced sterilizations have been made to law-enforcement agencies in Canada, but a preliminary review has not identified any.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s comment is in a letter to NDP health critic Don Davies, who called on the Mounties in February to launch an investigation into all allegations of forced or coerced tubal ligations in Canada.
Dozens of Indigenous women say they’ve been pressured into sterilizations they didn’t want or had them carried out without being asked when they were seeing doctors for other reasons.
The Saskatoon Health Authority publicly apologized in 2017 after Indigenous women came forward to say they were coerced into such procedures while a proposed class-action lawsuit has been filed against Saskatchewan, the federal government and doctors.
But while at least three federal probes have been launched, Lucki did not say the RCMP will launch its own investigation. Instead, she said any evidence of criminal activity should be reported to police _ which at this point does not appear to have happened.
Neither the external review that led to the Saskatoon Health Authority’s apology nor the proposed class-action lawsuit identified any complainants who had reported their allegations to the police, Lucki wrote to Davies on March 20.
“A search of our national database was conducted,” she added. “However, no files of forced or coerced sterilization were found.”
The RCMP will work with commanding officers in each province and territory as well as with other police forces to determine if any complaints of forced or coerced sterilization were made, Lucki said.
However, the commissioner said, “it is important that any evidence of criminal activity be reported to the police of jurisdiction where offences are alleged to have taken place so that they can be properly investigated.”
In an interview, Davies expressed disappointment and concern that the RCMP appeared to be refusing to launch an investigation _ particularly given the amount of information that has been unearthed in recent months about the coerced sterilization of women in Canada.
“I don’t accept that as a condition of a police investigation that there has to be a complaint,” he said. “There are facts in the public sphere and known to police that could lead to a reasonable belief that a crime was committed.”
Davies, who worried that the Trudeau government and RCMP are not taking the issue seriously, said he plans to ask Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the police force and is from Saskatchewan, to take a closer look at the matter.
An existing Criminal Code provision speaks to the involuntary termination of pregnancies. Another provision on aggravated assault applies to anyone “who wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life of the complainant.”
But critics have said a legal void remains around forced sterilization.
In December, chiefs at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa passed a resolution to support changes to the Criminal Code to explicitly criminalize forced sterilization.
The federal government has so far rejected the push to change the Criminal Code, saying existing provisions forbid a range of criminal behaviour including coerced sterilization.
The Senate’s human-rights committee last week became the latest to probe such practices, with a House of Commons committee also studying it and the federal government working with provinces and territories to discuss the scope of the problem.
– with files from the Canadian Press