At least 22 Indigenous women underwent forced sterilization in Quebec from 1980-2019: report

A study on the free and informed consent and imposed sterilization of First Nations and Inuit women in Quebec was released today. Indigenous researchers, women's groups, health-care providers and others collected testimony from across the province. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC - image credit)
A study on the free and informed consent and imposed sterilization of First Nations and Inuit women in Quebec was released today. Indigenous researchers, women's groups, health-care providers and others collected testimony from across the province. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC - image credit)

Researchers at a Quebec university collected the stories of more than 35 First Nations and Inuit women, who recounted their experiences with forced sterilization and imposed abortions in Quebec — a practice that had not been studied in the province.

Of the 35 accounts in the report released today, there were 22 cases of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Quebec since 1980. The report attributes the practice to systemic racism — something the Coalition Avenir Québec has refused to acknowledge — and calls for an end to it.

"In Canada, imposed sterilization fits into a continuum of colonial violence that continues to this day," the report says.

The researchers say 20 other women in Quebec who contacted the researchers were not able to participate in the study, meaning there could be at least 55 cases of forced sterilization in the province, not including other potential cases who may not have been aware of the research.

The women are from five nations and communities, including Atikamekw, Innu, Anishnaabe, Eeyou and Inuit. The youngest was 17 at the time of her medical intervention and the eldest was 46. The interventions occurred between 1980 and 2019, according to the report.

Their stories involved being pressured into, and misinformed about, a series of interventions from tubal ligations and abortions to hysterectomies.

"One lady got an operation for her bladder, but she had a hysterectomy," Patricia Bouchard, the study's co-author and a doctoral student at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT). Suzy Basile, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Women's Issues and a professor at UQAT, is the study's other co-author.

"Tubal ligation consists of tying, cauterizing or cutting the tissue of the fallopian tubes to prevent fertilization. It is a permanent procedure that is practically impossible to reverse," the report states.

The majority of the participants did not sign a form consenting to sterilization, and those who did said the information they received from medical staff was not clear about the procedure's impact on their ability to have children in the future.

The report says the most recent example of imposed sterilization was in 2019.

Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue
Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue

"In addition to having their bodies and rights violated, some participants reported side effects or trauma as a result of the procedure, such as untreated biological disorders following a hysterectomy," the report said, adding that the trauma deepened the women's fear and distrust of the public health system.

The study calls on the Quebec College of Physicians to immediately end the practice and also demands action from the provincial and federal governments.

Quebec is the only province to have declined to participate in a federal government initiative to examine the practice of forced sterilization, after several women came forward with their experiences in Western Canada.

Misinformed or not informed at all

The study by researchers at UQAT is the first in Quebec to document the forced sterilization of First Nations and Inuit women.

It quoted several of the women interviewed, but did not name them in order to protect their identity.

"He said to me, 'I'm going to fix your problem once and for all. You already have three kids, I'm going to operate on you again, I'm going to clean things up in your belly.' I didn't understand what he meant, he never said the word 'hysterectomy,'" one said.

"I developed an infection, and the surgeon went to see me only about three days after the surgery and he said, 'Well, while I was in there, I decided to take your uterus out,'" another reported.

One woman said a doctor told her she would be undergoing a tubal ligation, to which she objected.

"He told me, … 'Don't you think that you've already had enough? It's enough, you need to stop there. All the children that you bring into the world will live in poverty.' My God...," she told the researchers.

Others said they were repeatedly proposed sterilization and almost never given other options, whether it be for contraceptives or for treatment of reproductive issues or pain.

"Attempts by colonial states across the world to sever Indigenous peoples' connection to their land and thus interrupt the transmission of knowledge about pregnancy and childbirth, together with deliberate attempts to reduce the number of Indigenous people through various means, are part of an explicit plan of genocide," the report stated.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière reacted in a joint statement, saying they would look into the findings.

"This type of situation reminds us of the urgent need to offer Indigenous people access to culturally adapted health care and services in a safe environment," their statement said.

Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL), called imposed sterilization a theft of Indigenous women's fundamental rights.

"This research has made it possible to reveal the high degree of colonial violence of an odious and little-known reality, stemming from genocide, in a context as intimate as that of gynecological and obstetrical care for our First Nations and Inuit mothers and sisters," he said.