Senate report says forced sterilizations should be added to criminal code

A new Senate committee report says there should be criminal consequences for doctors who perform forced sterilizations.

“What we’ve had so far hasn’t worked,” Ontario Sen. Yvonne Boyer, one of the authors of The Scars That We Carry. “I believe there’s sterilizations happening today as we speak. The calls I get in my office tell me that. That women are still being coerced into sterilization. Women that are pregnant, even, are being coerced into having that tubal ligation.”

The human rights committee report, released Thursday, says that forced and coerced sterilizations persist in Canada and both legal and policy responses are needed.

The report also says victims should be compensated and an apology issued.

The senators say the “horrific practice” disproportionately affects vulnerable and marginalized groups including Indigenous women, Black and racialized women and people with disabilities.

The report follows a committee study on forced and coerced sterilization in Canada that began in 2019.

It defines forced or coerced sterilization as a surgical procedure to prevent conception that is performed without a patient’s free, prior and informed consent.

Boyer told a news conference that the committee heard “powerful truths” from survivors who testified and they must continue to guide the way forward.

“The survivors who testified were unequivocal, they believe that racism was the driving force behind their unwanted sterilizations,” Boyer said. “The repercussions of forced and coerced sterilization are extensive, lasting and devastating.

“On top of the trauma of undergoing the procedure itself, witnesses describe long-term health and psychological effects, including depression, anxiety and loss of trust in the medical system.”

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The report notes that Canada has a long history of forced and coerced sterilization through laws and government policies that sought to reduce births in Indigenous and Black communities, as well as people living in poverty or with disabilities.

Boyer said the finding that struck her the most was the deep-rooted impact of sterilization on entire communities and future generations.

“Forced sterilization disrupts and breaks the natural laws that Indigenous Peoples have followed since time immemorial,” she said.

The senators noted accurately tracking the number of forced sterilizations performed can be problematic.

This is why the report recommends establishing some sort of national data bank to keep accurate statistics on the issue.

“We’ve been doing everything that we can to bring as much data to the forefront as possible,” Boyer said. “However, that’s one of our recommendations is to get a very reliable data system in and to be able to know for sure how many people have been sterilized against their will.”

Boyer already introduced a bill in the Senate last month that would make it a criminal offence to sterilize someone against their will or without their consent. She urged the government to pass it quickly Thursday.

Another report co-author, Quebec Sen. Michèle Audette, added if women know doctors could face hard consequences as a result of the practice, they are more likely to come forward.

“If a woman or a family knows that there is a legislation that exists in Canada to protect or specifically for this – we’re giving a voice, dignity and a chance to make sure that she uses her rights,” she said.

Audette also said since provinces have failed to stop the ongoing practice of coerced sterilizations, it is time for the federal government to step in.

“I hope it will send a message also to the region where I live in Quebec where this mobilization when it started, the government didn’t want to participate. The Quebec government didn’t want to participate to this table or dialogue.”

While existing Criminal Code offences criminalizing assault could be used to prosecute forced sterilizations, Sen. Salma Ataullahjan said the committee has not seen consequences for anyone engaging in the practice.

Boyer said that despite provinces stating that the practice has stopped, forced sterilizations persist and a bill would make sure that medical workers stop and think before acting.

Boyer read a statement from a First Nations woman in southern Alberta who said she was coerced into being sterilized after having four children. She said her mother was also sterilized shortly after having her.

“I’ve been attacked by a system that wished harm on the continuance of my family and ancestral lineage,” she said in the statement.

“It’s simply genocide, limiting the number of my immediate family unit, my relatives, members of my tribe, and Indigenous existence.”

In an emailed statement, Indigenous Services Canada Patty Hajdu’s office told APTN News, “Forced and coerced sterilization is a deeply troubling violation of human rights and is evidence of the need to improve cultural safety in our health and social systems.

“This is a serious matter that requires the collaboration of all orders of government, and health and social system professionals, to ensure health services are safe for all Indigenous women.”

APTN also reached out to the Canadian Medical Association but a spokesperson said no one was available Thursday to comment on the report.

With files from the Canadian Press

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