Forced and coerced sterilization: Never again | Sen. Yvonne Boyer

By Sen. Yvonne Boyer

Law360 Canada (June 14, 2022, 9:00 AM EDT) --
Senator Yvonne Boyer
Senator Yvonne Boyer
I am no stranger to racism in health care, no Indigenous person in this country is. We have all experienced it, and we have all seen our families experience it. This is the tragic reality if you are Indigenous or a person of colour in Canada. This may be a surprise to some, but for those of us who know and have experienced racism in Canada’s health-care system, it is simply a fact of life.

My introduction to racism in Canada’s health-care system was at a very young age when I lived with my Aunt Lucy Dubois — my father’s sister. Aunt Lucy was a tiny Chippewa/Métis woman who had spent 10 years as a young adult in a tuberculosis sanatorium, five of those years in a full-body cast. As a child, Aunt Lucy would tell me stories about “the monsters that walked the halls” and other horrific experiences she had seen but never admitted being subjected to.

Looking back now, I believe that my aunt was sterilized while she was at the sanatorium. She loved me dearly but was never able to have any children of her own. I carry this with me in the work I do to this day, for Aunt Lucy and all my Indigenous aunties and sisters.

As a nurse working in small, 50-bed hospitals in Central Alberta, I heard other nurses make disparaging remarks about Indigenous women they were treating, not knowing these women were also my sisters and aunties. “If only we could sterilize them all — that would solve the Indian problem,” they would say critically, as if they were not talking about fellow human beings.

These comments, along with witnessing a lifetime of systemic racism, propelled me forward on a path to protect my relations. As a lawyer, academic, administrator and now as a senator in the Senate of Canada, I have focused on improving the lives of Métis, First Nations and Inuit in Canada, and working to ensure our Charter (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c.11.) and s. 35 (Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c.11. The term “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada” in the Constitution refers to the “Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada” at s. 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982) rights are upheld and honoured.

The topic of the forced and coerced sterilization of women in Canada is a difficult one. It is an issue that many people are shocked to learn is still happening to this day — maybe even as you read this article.

While I had been aware of the issue for a long time, it truly came to the forefront of my professional life when, in 2015, Betty Ann Adams, then a reporter from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, called me. She was asking for my comment on a story that two Indigenous women had been sterilized in the Saskatoon Hospital. My gut reaction was to be appalled and horrified, but deep down I was not surprised that this had happened; I was surprised that it was getting attention.

Tracy Bannab and Brenda Pelletier were the two brave women who came forward because they knew that if it had happened to them, it had happened to many sisters and aunties. Once they spoke out, two more came forward, then two more and soon there were 11. Over the years, many people have thanked me for the work I do, but it is these two women that deserve the thanks — they broke the silence and made it possible for hundreds of other women to come forward and share their stories.

Since these two brave women came forward in 2015, more and more survivors have been speaking out about this horrific practice. On social media, through e-mail and over the phone, I have heard stories from survivors from every corner of this country.

Most recently, these voices and experiences were brought to the Senate of Canada through testimony given at the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights when the senators on the committee heard directly from eight survivors, who spoke with courage and truth on their side.

They spoke about their past, and they spoke about a way forward and what must be done to right these wrongs. These survivors have already had to deal with this immense trauma for years, which often feels like an eternity, and now they are raising their voices, working towards making sure this horrific practice will never happen again. To make sure that there are no more babies stolen before they have the chance to be conceived.

As with any complex issue, there was a range of suggestions presented on how to accomplish this goal. Yet there was one item that has been clear and unifying in every conversation I have had — the healing process must be led by survivors, for it is only the voices of those who have been adversely impacted by this that can guide the process towards healing.

Now that we have listened and heard their calls, we must act quickly and decisively, for our people, Métis, First Nations and Inuit cannot afford to have another generation of children stolen. Not now, not ever again.

Sen. Yvonne Boyer is a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, with her ancestral roots in the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the Red River. With a background in nursing, she has over 21 years of experience practising law and publishing extensively on the topics of Indigenous health and how Aboriginal rights and treaty law intersects on the health of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. She came to the Senate of Canada from the University of Ottawa, where she was the associate director for the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics and a part-time professor in the faculty of law.

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