At least 22 Indigenous women have undergone forced sterilization and several others have been victims of obstetrical violence, including forced abortions, between 1980 and 2019 in Quebec, according to a new research report made public today.
“It’s alarming, already one case, it’s too many,” says the author of the research, Suzy Basile, holder of the Research Chair in Indigenous Women’s Issues at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. .
It was in 2020, after hearing a woman testify about forced sterilization at a national conference in Ottawa on informed consent and health care for Indigenous women, that Ms. Basile and Marjolaine Sioui, Executive Director of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission, had the idea of conducting this research. “We looked at each other and said to ourselves: it’s time to do something for Quebec,” explains Ms. Basile in a telephone interview.
Cases of forced sterilization of Aboriginal women are well documented in the rest of Canada, where a Senate committee has looked into the matter. But very little information exists on this subject in Quebec, with the exception of testimonies made public in the media. Last November, Atikamekw women from Manawan also filed a class action lawsuit against the Joliette hospital.
“We knew that there were cases in Quebec, but there was nothing written. We wanted to make the situation known so that it would stop, ”says Ms. Basile.
Between May 2021 and January 2022, the research team met with 35 Indigenous women from 5 nations. In their testimonies, 22 claim to have undergone tubal ligation or hysterectomy against their will. Of this number, 13 claim to have suffered other obstetrical violence at the same time, described as discriminatory gestures, attitudes and remarks on the part of health personnel. Six experienced obstetrical violence without forced sterilization.
And these figures are “underestimated” according to Ms. Basile. Twenty additional women wanted to testify but were unable to do so due to COVID-19. Others simply backed out, realizing they weren’t ready to look back on those events.
The events documented in the research would have occurred between 1980 and 2019, in the cities of Roberval, La Tuque, Val d’Or, Joliette and Sept-Îles. Most of the women were aged between 17 and 33 at the time of the intervention.
“The sterilizations were carried out in a hurry, often after giving birth, when the participants had never discussed contraception with their doctors during their pregnancy follow-up and when there was no medical reason justifying the haste to carry out this intervention. “, can we read in the report which is nearly 80 pages.
Sixteen of the twenty-two women indicated that they had not signed any consent form to that effect. The ligature would have been practiced “without their knowledge, while they were undergoing a caesarean section”, specifies the document. “Months, even years, passed before they consulted in fertility and learned with dismay that they had been tied during their most recent delivery,” writes Ms. Basile.
Others signed a consent “on the basis of erroneous information”, without being explained to them precisely what this implied and the irreversible side of this operation, which they would have been presented as a simple means of contraception. “It appears in the testimonies that there is a general lack of knowledge about the permanent nature of this operation,” writes Ms. Basile.
Others, finally, say they have been under strong pressure from medical personnel to accept a tubal ligation. “One participant’s repeated refusals to undergo tubal ligation do not appear to have had any impact on her physician’s behavior,” writes the author.
Forced abortions and other obstetrical violence
Over the course of the interviews, without questions on the subject being considered, “the unexpected theme of forced abortion emerged”, indicates Ms. Basile in her report.
In the sample, three testimonies refer to forced abortions. “The common denominator of these testimonies is the insistence as well as the pressure of the medical staff on them to undergo this procedure, explains Ms. Basile. All the participants underlined that they were very ambivalent and fearful at the idea of terminating their pregnancies. The time factor was also raised: they had little time to make a decision and to really understand the medical reasons invoked so that they agreed to terminate their pregnancy. »
Several participants reported having borne the brunt of obstetrical violence and suffered racist remarks. In the research, a woman recounts the words of the doctor who tried to convince her, despite her refusal, to undergo a tubal ligation. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough here? That’s enough, it has to stop. All the children you have brought into the world will all live in misery. »
Another member of staff reportedly commented to her that she smelt and was “not clean”. The number of her children prompted many derogatory comments during her visits, including this one: “Aren’t you tired of making babies? Next time, cross your legs! »
During previous deliveries, comments were made to her that she was too young to have children. “What are you going to do with that baby?” Are you going to give it to your mother and then you are going to trot? »
She even heard from medical personnel that her newborn daughter was going to be “beaten, raped”, that she would have a “very, very hard life”.
“These negative experiences had an impact on her self-esteem as a mother,” summarizes Ms. Basile.
Some denounced “inappropriate sexual gestures that occurred during examinations or pregnancy follow-ups”. Others, finally, reported the “lack of seriousness” given to their symptoms.
The research team recommends setting up a “working group whose mandate would be to propose legislative changes in order to prevent and sanction forced sterilizations and obstetrical violence in Quebec and Canada”.
It also calls on the College of Physicians to “stop the practices of imposed sterilization, imposed abortion and the pressure exerted on First Nations and Inuit women to accept the procedure”.
Finally, the team asks the government of Quebec to adopt Joyce’s Principle and recognize systemic racism in Quebec. “I’m going to quote Mr. Legault who said last fall: it’s zero tolerance. Well, put that into action now, Mr. Legault, ”concludes Ms. Basile in an interview.
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