In late May, B.C. lawyer Breen Ouellette came out with allegations of Indigenous girls being forced by social workers to receive intrauterine devices, or IUDs. According to Ouellette, children younger than 10 were not only made to get the procedure, but weren’t even given medical followup. This practice violates not only B.C. and Canadian law, but also numerous international human rights codes.
As shocking as these allegations are, they’re far from an isolated case. Forced and coerced birth control and sterilization have been a widespread issue for Indigenous women in Canada for decades. In fact, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) devoted an entire section to forced sterilizations in its final report.
Throughout the 20th century, governments on both the provincial and federal level pursued an active policy of eugenics. The federal government administered experimental birth control to Indigenous women before it was approved for general use. Alberta and B.C. enacted laws such as the Sexual Sterilization Act—the shared name of acts the provinces passed in 1928 and 1933, respectively—which allowed the government to sterilize people they deemed “mentally defective” or unfit to raise children. Although these laws didn’t explicitly target indigenous people, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women were all disproportionately targeted. From the period of 1966 to 1970 alone, more than 1,000 Indigenous women were sterilized by government doctors. Between 1971 and 1974 federal hospitals in Ontario, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta sterilized 580 women—95 per cent of whom were Indigenous. These rates were particularly grotesque in northern communities. In 1976, anywhere between 25 to 30 per cent of Indigenous women aged 30 to 50 were sterilized in some areas of what is now Nunavut. In the Inuit community of Naujaat, nearly 50 per cent of women in this age range were sterilized.
These laws were eventually repealed in the 1970s. However, the issue wasn’t put to an end. While the government is no longer openly promoting these practices, they never stopped, and allegations persist well into the current day.
An ongoing class-action lawsuit based in Saskatchewan, alleging cases of forced or coerced sterilization as recently as 2018, has been signed on by 100 different (mostly Indigenous) women. The document details a long list of cases where women were given tubal ligations without informed or free consent. In some cases, Indigenous women were pushed into signing consent forms while laying on an operating table or right in the middle of labour. Some Indigenous women have been separated from their newborn babies or told they would not be allowed to leave until they agreed to be sterilized. In other cases, they were physically forced into surgery by doctors while begging against it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in typical fashion, has acknowledged these cases, but hasn’t actually done anything about it. The federal government has not put forward any concrete plans to stop future sterilizations, compensate victims, or even start a comprehensive investigation into the full scope of the crisis. They have even outright refused to make coerced sterilization explicitly illegal! The Liberals have nothing to offer Indigenous people but empty platitudes.
Government actions like the National Inquiry into MMIWG—as well-intentioned as many of its participants certainly are—have functioned as little more than a way for the Canadian government to save face in light of its role in enacting violence against Indigenous women. Ouellette himself resigned from the inquiry back in 2018 (making him the 24th official at the time to do so), citing both federal interference and pointing out that they didn’t have enough money, time, or power to do their job. He stated at the time, “I cannot remain part of a process which is speeding toward failure.”
Given their clear unwillingness to find a solution, the Canadian government shouldn’t be trusted to do so. The very state that started this violence against Indigenous women isn’t going to be the one that ends it, since its interests in removing Indigenous people as an obstacle to exploiting the land remains the same. The genocidal practices of the Canadian government have not stopped, but have merely changed form. The barbaric treatment of Indigenous women is one of the clearest expressions of this fact. The only way to truly put an end to racism is to abolish the current system that encourages racism. Reconciliation is impossible under a government that continues to treat Indigenous people like animals. The only way forward is to overthrow capitalism in its entirety.