Two women file class action suit after Saskatoon authorities admit several others have made claims of undergoing process without proper consent
Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s indigenous relations minister. The Saskatoon health region has offered a public apology over sterilisations.
Two indigenous women in Canada have filed a class action lawsuit over allegations that they were coerced into undergoing sterilisation at a Saskatchewan hospital. The suit was launched after health authorities in the province admitted that several women had come forward with similar claims.
The legal challenge, which still needs to be certified by a judge, centres on the idea of proper and informed consent – and whether this was obtained before the womenwere sterilised.
One of the complainants alleges that she explicitly refused to have her fallopian tubes tied when staff suggested the procedure after the birth of her son in 2001. Despite her objections, she was taken to the operating room in a wheelchair, still weak from delivery, and the procedure was carried out, she said.
The second woman alleges that a doctor suggested tubal ligation as she was being wheeled into the operation theatre for an emergency caesarean section – and had already been given an epidural to counter the deep pain she was in.
She had serious reservations about the procedure, but was also worried about the premature arrival of her son and felt she was in no position to reject the idea, she alleges. She consented and the procedure was carried out immediately after her son was born in 2008. Both complainants’ identities are protected by a publication ban.
“You have to ask yourself, how did this happen?” said Alisa Lombard, the lawyer who filed the statement of claim. “These are people whose choices were taken away and they are choices based in fundamental human rights. The very intimate and personal decision to have children – or to not have children – belongs to the individual. It’s not something that can be fettered or influenced or coerced or forced.”
The issue of coerced sterilisations in Saskatchewan was thrust into the spotlight in 2015, after several women told local media that they had felt pressured into having a tubal ligation immediately after childbirth at a hospital in Saskatoon. Health authorities responded by introducing new criteria for tubal ligations and commissioning an independent review.
The resulting report by an indigenous doctor and lawyer was released in July and described the experiences of seven indigenous women who felt they had been coerced into sterilisation.
The report did not give timelines or specific details. Instead it focused on the women’s experiences of feeling powerless and discriminated against, documenting how some felt as though they had been harassed into the procedure by nurses and doctors. One woman said hospital staff did not want her to leave until she had tubal ligation.
Several of the women said they did not give consent or could not recall doing so. Others said they consented because they were “too tired and overwhelmed to fight any longer”, the report found.
Most of the women, it added, did not understand that tubal ligations were permanent.
Historians have long documented the disproportionate effect that policies on sterilisation have had on Canada’s indigenous women. In 1928, the province of Alberta enacted legislation aimed at sterilising those considered mentally challenged and other disadvantaged groups. An estimated 2,800 sterilisations were carried out – including on many Aboriginal people – before the act was repealed in 1972. Authorities in British Columbia, which passed its own act in 1933, sterilised some 400 people.
The release of the report this summer sparked a public apology from the Saskatoon health region, the authority that oversees the hospital highlighted in the claims. “I want to apologise to the women who came forward in the review, who’ve come forward to us in the past, and who haven’t yet been able to come forward to us,” a spokeswoman, Jackie Mann, said at a news conference.
“This report states that racism exists within our healthcare system and we as leaders acknowledge this,” she added. “No woman should be treated the way you were treated.”
The report also delved into the lasting consequences the procedure had had on the women, from health issues to the breakdown of relationships. These after-effects are reflected in the proposed class action lawsuit: one of the complainants said she sought to reverse her tubal ligation in 2011, only to be told there was little chance of doing so successfully.
The realisation left her wrestling with feelings of shame, depression and anxiety, according to court documents. “She has experienced a feeling of losing her womanhood and value as a woman, an ability integral to her cultural and spiritual beliefs, and has isolated herself physically and emotionally,” the claim noted. If certified, the lawsuit is seeking damages of C$7m per plaintiff.
Since filing the statement of claim, the lawyer representing the two women said she had heard from more than 40 other women across Saskatchewan with similar experiences, one as recent as 2010.
“The number increases every day,” said Lombard. “There are some women that it not only happened to them but it happened to their mothers and daughters.”
Their stories shed light on the barriers that can, at times, cloud the issue of proper and informed consent, from entrenched power structures and stereotypes, to language and cultural barriers, she noted.
“It’s just so terrible to hear,” she said. “Because you hope that it’s isolated and then when it turns out not to be – when it turns out to look like a systemic failure – you really have to wonder how this could happen.”
While the legal action aims to address individual consequences, Lombard wondered about the broader impact. “What would indigenous nations look like if these practices had not have been carried out?” Lombard asked. “How many more children would we have as part of our vibrant, indigenous communities? We’ll never know. So the loss is primarily individual, but also collective.”
She pointed to the United Nations convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide, which includes measures aimed at preventing births within a group. “When you talk about genocide, no one wants to think Canada,” she said. “I don’t want to call it that, but I have to call it that, because that’s what it is.”