At least 22 Indigenous women have reported having undergone forced sterilization in Quebec since 1980. A last case even dates back to 2019, reveals a first research report on the free and informed consent and coerced sterilizations of First Nations and Inuit women. “A clear finding, the presence of systemic racism,” conclude the researchers.
The facts reported are serious. There is talk of forced abortions and hysterectomies. Tubal ligations carried out without the full consent of the patients. Sometimes immediately after childbirth. The women who testified also listed several forms of obstetrical violence.
The research team, led by Suzy Basile and Patricia Bouchard of the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, collected testimonies from 35 participants, including 14 Atikamekw and 10 Innu. The age at the time of the interventions varies between 17 and 46 years. The oldest reported intervention dates back to 1980 and the most recent to 2019.
The researchers conclude that there have indeed been forced sterilizations and abortions of Aboriginal women in Quebec, and that the province “thus joins the procession of other Canadian provinces and territories” where such situations have been documented.
The study concludes with “serious breaches” and “major ethical faults” committed by the medical staff.
“These silenced practices seem to support the reproduction of discriminatory remarks and colonial attitudes towards these women,” write the researchers, who recommend that the Legault government recognize systemic racism, which it refuses to do so far.
“The analysis of the testimonies collected within the framework of this research, juxtaposed with the conclusions of recent research work carried out in Quebec, converges towards the same observation, that is to say the obvious presence of systemic racism”, one writes.
The work was launched in the spring of 2021 with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission (FNQLHSSC). This is the first research on the subject in Quebec.
“This research has made it possible to reveal the high degree of colonial violence of an odious and little-known reality, relating to the genocide, in a context as intimate as that of gynecological and obstetrical care for our mothers and our sisters”, deplores the head of Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard.
“The coerced sterilization suffered by indigenous women is a violation of their physical and psychological integrity as well as a theft of the fundamental right to bear children after them,” he added.
The report does not name the health facilities where these interventions were carried out. On the other hand, it is indicated that this was practiced in the cities of Roberval, La Tuque, Val-d’Or, Joliette and Sept-Îles, all municipalities near communities.
In the wake of journalistic investigations that reported cases of Indigenous women who had undergone forced sterilization, Prime Minister François Legault had described these practices as “barbaric” and “totally unacceptable”.
The Legault government then mandated the Minister for Health and Social Services, Lionel Carmant, to ensure that doctors stop this practice.
“Pressure” from medical staff
The women reported being pressured by medical staff to undergo tubal ligation or hysterectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the uterus. In most cases, the intervention occurs after childbirth.
One participant even recounts having signed the consent form for tubal ligation while she was in labor.
Aboriginal women have also reported having learned that they had undergone a ligature only “several years” after the intervention, when she was no longer able to give birth.
Women also claimed to have suffered forms of “obstetrical violence” from medical personnel, such as “making remarks and comments imbued with judgment and contempt” or “attitudes of disdain, indifference” to regard to patients.
“The testimonies repeatedly point to discriminatory remarks related to Aboriginal identity,” the report reads.
In one case, a doctor allegedly offered a patient a tubal ligation, which she initially refused. ” He told me […] : “Don’t you think you’ve had enough there? That’s enough, it has to stop, that. All the children you have given birth to will all live in misery”, reports the indigenous woman.
Another participant even claimed to have been “pressured” to “give her child up for adoption” during a difficult second pregnancy. “Maybe it would be better [que tu te fasses avorter] a nurse would have suggested to him, it is reported.
Moreover, “unexpectedly, the theme of forced abortions emerged” during the survey. Three women claim to have had abortions without their consent.
The question of the language barrier is also underlined. None of the women who testified was offered the intervention of an interpreter at the time of the events, even though “the majority of them speak an Aboriginal language on a daily basis”. Several women underlined the “hostility of the medical personnel” and the “fear” felt.
“The analysis of the participants’ painful accounts shows that the undermining of free and informed consent, through the absence, inaccuracy or lack of information given to women (in a second or even a third language) about their health condition and the procedure they were about to undergo, is highly problematic and has indelible repercussions on their physical and psychological health as well as on their personal life,” the researchers conclude.
These issue 31 recommendations, in particular to the Government of Quebec, including:
- Recognize Joyce’s principle.
- Recognize systemic racism.
- Convene the College of Physicians so that all necessary means are taken to put an end to this practice.
- Adequately fund the deployment of doula training in First Nations and Inuit communities as well as midwifery services in First Nations and Inuit communities, in addition to those already existing.