UN Special Rapporteurs Highlight Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women in Canada
In their latest reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women addressed the ongoing issue of forced or coerced sterilizations of Indigenous women in Canada’s public healthcare institutions. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health on his visit to Canada, UN Doc. No. A/HRC/41/34/Add.2, 19 June 2019, paras. 83-84; Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on her visit to Canada, UN Doc No. A/HRC/41/42/Add.1, 3 June 2019, paras. 58-61. This issue has been gaining increased attention within Canada and internationally; these reports reiterate and build upon the recommendations already made to Canada to take steps to remedy and prevent this human rights violation. See IJRC, Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women in Canada. The special rapporteurs presented their reports at the 41st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, which concluded on July 12, 2019, following their visits to Canada in 2018. The International Justice Resource Center (IJRC) has been actively supporting Canadian advocates in their international human rights advocacy regarding the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, and welcomes these latest responses.
The Reports & Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women
Both Special Rapporteurs specifically highlighted the ongoing forced or coerced sterilizations perpetrated against Indigenous women across Canada.
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dainius Pūras, visited Canada from November 5 to November 16, 2018 to assess Canada’s performance on providing for and protecting Canadian residents’ right to health. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health on his visit to Canada, 19 June 2019, at para. 1. With respect to the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, the Special Rapporteur on the right to health acknowledged that at least 76 Indigenous women have recently reported being sterilized without their informed consent. See id. at para. 83. The report notes that women described similar practices, such as doctors attempting to obtain their consent while they were in labor or immediately after child birth, withholding information on alternative forms of birth control, and other intentionally coercive tactics. See id.
The Special Rapporteur on health reiterated his support for the recommendations from the UN Committee against Torture’s 2018 concluding observations, in which it urged Canada to ensure that all allegations of forced sterilization are properly investigated, those responsible are held accountable, and victims have access to redress. See id. at para. 84. Further, the Special Rapporteur endorsed the recommendation that Canada pass legislation to “prevent and criminalize” forced or coerced sterilization, “particularly by clearly defining the requirement for free, prior and informed consent with regard to sterilization.” See id. at para. 84. Finally, the Special Rapporteur emphasized the need to raise awareness among Indigenous communities and health care personnel about what free, prior, and informed consent entails. See id.
While the Special Rapporteur raised significant concerns over the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, he noted that Canada’s public health system is generally strong and ensures that economic barriers do not prevent people from accessing health care. See id. at para. 26, 99-100. Nevertheless, he identified major areas for improvement, which include: 1) the discrepancies in the scope of services provided for and covered by provinces or territories; 2) the differential levels of access to quality healthcare among territories and provinces which results from the “federal division of health-care responsibilities”; 3) challenges in access to healthcare services for those in vulnerable situations, “including indigenous peoples”; and, 4) the unequal treatment between physical and mental health within the healthcare system. See id. at para. 36. Among many other more specific recommendations, the Special Rapporteur issued two main recommendations to help Canada comply with its international obligations: “a) include human rights criteria in the existing criteria for health federal transfers under the Canada Health Transfer; and (b) consider adopting a rights-based national health-care framework/strategy for the whole country.” See id. at para. 34.
Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Šimonović, visited Canada from April 13 to April 23, 2018 to assess Canada’s progress in eliminating violence against women. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on her visit to Canada, 3 June 2019. While the Special Rapporteur on violence against women did not cite definitive numbers regarding Indigenous women who have been forcibly sterilized, she did state that she was aware of reports of cases of forced or coerced sterilization and highlighted the Saskatoon Health Regional Authority’s apology for the practice and its acknowledgment of racism within the healthcare system. See id. at paras. 59-60. The Special Rapporteur stated that the practice should be investigated and “addressed in the context of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples,” information on consent should be clarified and disseminated, and victims should receive whatever remedies are necessary. See id. at paras. 59-60.
While the report noted Canada’s visible commitment to women’s rights at both the international and domestic level, including its acceptance of international treaties (even though some have not been fully incorporated in Canada’s legal framework) and the creation of a number of women’s rights and human rights-focused oversight institutions, she reported a variety of concerns, particularly with respect to the current lack of protections for Indigenous women and girls from gender-based violence. See id. at paras. 10, 13-15, 34-37. She also highlighted areas of weakness in data collection and prevention in cases of femicide, the lack of shelters and free legal aid for women who have suffered abuse, and persisting disproportionate impact of domestic violence and sexual assault on women and girls. See id. at paras. 39-70. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur dedicated a section of her report to the issues facing women confronting intersecting forms of discrimination and violence: Indigenous women, women and girls with disabilities, asylum seekers and refugees, and rural women. See id. at paras. 71-79. She urged the creation of a more holistic national action plan to combat violence against women and girls, ensuring equitable access to human rights protections and public services; encouraged Canada to harmonize relevant laws across territories and provinces; and pushed the government to strengthen its investigation and data collection on these issues. See id. at para. 95.
Other International Attention
Forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada has recently been raised in a number of international fora. As mentioned above, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) in its 2018 concluding observations following Canada’s periodic review before the Committee, called on Canada to conduct an impartial investigation, hold persons responsible accountable, and provide redress to the victims. See Committee Against Torture, Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of Canada, UN Doc. No. CAT/C/CAN/CO/7, 21 December 2018, at paras. 50-51. Additionally, the CAT called on Canada to criminalize forced sterilization. See id.
At the regional level, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a press release in January 2019 echoing the CAT’s findings and recommendations, adding to the mounting pressure on Canada to take corrective action. [IACHR Press Release]
Most recently, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada issued its final report, which briefly provided a historical analysis of the practice of forced sterilization in Canada. See NIMMIW, Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019), 266. Responding to this report, IACHR Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay stated that “[i]n Canada, we have documented that Indigenous women and girls have faced numerous forms of discrimination and violence, resulting from historical marginalization, racism, sexism and poverty, together with structural inequalities and violations related to their territories and natural resources.” [IACHR Press Release: Canada]
The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, through which States discuss human rights conditions in the UN Member States. See IJRC, UN Human Rights Council. The Council is composed of 47 Member States elected from the UN General Assembly and is authorized to issue resolutions calling on States to take specific actions or uphold certain principles and to create mechanisms to investigate or monitor questions of concern. See id. Those mechanisms include the “special procedures.” Special procedures are experts (“special rapporteurs” or “independent experts”) appointed to monitor human rights around priority themes or in specific countries with serious human rights problems. See id. Special procedures present their reports to the Human Rights Council when it holds sessions, usually in March, June, and September of each year. See id.
For more information about the UN Human Rights Council, UN special procedures, and the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.