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Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women in Canada
The International Justice Resource Center (IJRC) provides technical assistance to Indigenous rights lawyers working to stop the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada and to secure redress for victims. Since November 2017, we have partnered to secure and pursue multiple international human rights advocacy opportunities. By engaging with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, United Nations Committee against Torture, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, and Commission on the Status of Women, we have amplified our partners’ message and impact.
This collaboration has resulted in multiple strong statements from human rights bodies, the Canadian government’s acknowledgment of its responsibility for forced sterilization of Indigenous women and its commitment to implement our proposed reforms and measures of redress, and significantly increased public awareness. Numerous national and international media outlets, including the CBC, Guardian, Newsweek, and National Public Radio (NPR) have recently covered this issue and these efforts.
IJRC is providing technical assistance and guidance to the lawyers, including attorney Alisa Lombard, who represent Indigenous women who have been forcibly sterilized in Canada. This work is part of IJRC’s Advocacy Support program, through which IJRC provides advocates with advice on human rights advocacy opportunities, guidance and support in pursuing those opportunities, and technical assistance including legal research and writing.
The following paragraphs detail the: the pattern of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, the advocacy opportunities IJRC has secured with our partners in Canada, and the documents related to those interactions.
Modern-Day Forced Sterilization in Canada
Indigenous women in Canada have been subjected to forced sterilization in public hospitals, going back many decades and into 2018. This practice appears to disproportionately, and possibly exclusively, target Indigenous women. Dozens of victims have come forward on their own since late 2017, but the full scale of the problem is unknown because there has been no comprehensive investigation, and due to a lack of publicly available data.
Attorney Alisa Lombard represents several women in civil litigation against the relevant healthcare providers and governmental entities alleged to be responsible for forcibly sterilizing them. They are seeking certification of a class action on behalf of all Indigenous women forcibly sterilized in Saskatchewan. Doctors most often perform these sterilizations when the woman is in labor or is immediately post-partum, using a tubal ligation procedure that permanently prevents her from becoming pregnant again naturally and that can have profound consequences for her and her family. Some known cases involve women being sterilized despite expressly denying consent, while other women are unduly pressured, and others are simply not asked.
A forced sterilization is one performed without the woman’s free, prior, full, and informed consent. International human rights law has clearly established that forced sterilization violates multiple human rights and is an act of gender-based violence. See our four-page overview of recent decisions and statements on forced sterilization, and our webpage on forced sterilization for more information.
Advocacy at the Regional Level
IJRC assisted Alisa Lombard and her colleagues in successfully requesting a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On February 27, 2018, the IACHR convened a hearing that included the topic of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada. At the hearing, Alisa Lombard detailed the known pattern of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan, in particular, and recommended specific government action to prevent future violations, including through addressing discrimination in the public healthcare system. In connection with the hearing, we submitted additional detailed information in writing.
The Commissioners expressed alarm and dismay upon learning that Indigenous women continue to be forcibly sterilized in Canada, and that there has been no accountability for these abuses. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonovic, also participated in the hearing and shared the IACHR Commissioners’ concern. In a subsequent hearing, the IACHR publicly questioned the Canadian government about its efforts to ensure changes in policy and practice.
In response, the Canadian government acknowledged its role in forced sterilizations of Indigenous women through its responsibility for managing the public healthcare system, and pledged to share the documentation in its possession. The government has also promised to implement the reforms we proposed. These were encouraging and meaningful steps forward.
In May 2018, IJRC and Alisa Lombard attended the 168th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to further inform the Commissioners about this issue, including through bilateral meetings.
In January 2019, the IACHR published a detailed press release dedicated to the problem of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, in which it called on the government to take specific measures including investigating these allegations, collecting data on sterilizations, holding accountable those responsible, criminalizing forced sterilization, and ensuring reparations for victims.
Advocacy at the Universal Level
UN Committee against Torture
In November 2018, IJRC and Alisa Lombard participated in Canada’s periodic review before the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), at its 65th session. Through the written submission, presented in October 2018, and oral briefing, we were able to inform the Committee’s assessment of Canada’s implementation of the CAT, resulting in a dedicated section on forced sterilization of Indigenous women in the CAT’s “concluding observations.”
During the “constructive dialogue” between the CAT and Canadian government delegation, the CAT raised the points made in our written submission. In particular, the CAT rapporteur (point person) for Canada’s review, Sebastien Touze, said that forced sterilization of Indigenous women is a violation of the Convention against Torture, is “tantamount to torture,” and reflects the systemic discrimination against Indigenous women. He further called out the complete lack of administrative or criminal investigation, and called on Canada to criminalize forced sterilization and ensure an access to a remedy and redress for survivors. Watch the video recording.
In its oral response, the Canadian government committed to improving healthcare for Indigenous women, and implementing the recommendations made to it before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (see our submission below) in 2018, regarding ensuring informed consent. The CAT responded that Canada’s obligations include providing reparation, investigating allegations, implementing measures to ensure non-repetition, and punishing those responsible.
The CAT’s written concluding observations, published in December 2018, call particular attention to the forced sterilization of Indigenous women. Paragraphs 50 and 51 of the concluding observations state:
The Committee is concerned at reports of extensive forced or coerced sterilization of indigenous women and girls dating back to the 1970s and including recent cases in the province of Saskatchewan between 2008 and 2012. According to the information before the Committee, at least 55 women have contacted lawyers representing indigenous women who have filed a pending class action lawsuit against doctors and health officials at a Saskatchewan public hospital for undergoing tubal ligation procedures without proper consent. The Committee takes note of the information provided by the delegation on the external review on this matter launched by Saskatoon Health Region (which later became part of the Saskatchewan Health Authority) in January 2017, but remains concerned at the lack of information regarding the implementation of the calls of action included in the final report, especially those related to reparation (arts. 2, 12, 13, 14 and 16).
The State party should: (a) Ensure that all allegations of forced or coerced sterilization are impartially investigated, that the persons responsible are held accountable and that adequate redress is provided to the victims; (b) Adopt legislative and policy measures to prevent and criminalize the forced or coerced sterilization of women, particularly by clearly defining the requirement for free, prior and informed consent with regard to sterilization and by raising awareness among indigenous women and medical personnel of that requirement.
In its January 2019 press release, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights echoed these findings and recommendations, as did two UN special procedure mandate holders, as detailed below.
UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women
In March and April 2018, IJRC assisted our Canadian partners in contributing to the oversight of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, including in her April 2018 country visit to Canada. In several meetings and written submissions, Alisa Lombard and her colleagues informed the Special Rapporteur about the ongoing and unresolved problem of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, and arranged for the Special Rapporteur to hear directly from survivors. At the end of her visit, the Special Rapporteur called on Canada to take “urgent action on systemic violence against indigenous women.”
The Special Rapporteur submitted her report on her visit to Canada to the UN Human Rights Council in 2019. The report addresses the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, stating:
The Rapporteur believes that the practices of forced sterilization should be investigated and addressed in the context of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples, particularly Indigenous women, as well as comprehensive information on consent instituted while victims of such violence should receive full remedy including compensation.
She recommends that Canada:
[i]nvestigate all allegations of forced or coerced sterilizations, with particular attention to cases involving Indigenous women and girls, ensuring justice and remedies including reparations to survivors and their families, explicitly prohibiting sterilization without free, full, and informed consent and enforce healthcare professional accountability
UN Special Rapporteur on health
The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dainius Pūras visited Canada in November 2018. The Special Rapporteur submitted his report on his visit to Canada to the UN Human Rights Council in 2019. The report includes the issue of forced sterilization of Indigenous women and states:
The Special Rapporteur endorses the recommendations made in December 2018 by the Committee against Torture that Canada ensure that all allegations of forced or coerced sterilization are impartially investigated, that responsible persons are held accountable and that adequate redress is provided to victims. Furthermore, he urges Canada to adopt legislative and policy measures to prevent and criminalize the forced or coerced sterilization of women, particularly by clearly defining the requirement for free, prior and informed consent with regard to sterilization and by raising awareness among indigenous women and health-care personnel of that requirement.
Universal Periodic Review
In May 2018, Canada underwent its third Universal Periodic Review, a peer review process that examines the human rights records of UN Member States. Thanks to coordination and awareness-raising with other civil society organizations in Canada, forced sterilization of Indigenous women was included among the topics raised during the interactive discussion with Canada held on May 11, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland. The State of Argentina concretely recommended that Canada “[t]ake the necessary steps to investigate complaints lodged regarding the forced sterilization of women from vulnerable groups and, where appropriate, punish those responsible and assist affected women.” Watch the video recording (at 54:51) to see the representative of Argentina make this recommendation. The documents related to the UPR are available online. The Canadian government accepted Argentina’s recommendation (number 212).
Commission on the Status of Women
IJRC advanced our partners’ advocacy around forced sterilization at the 2019 Commission on the Status of Women, which convenes every March in New York. Our interventions included a written statement, a factsheet with recommendations, and a side event on forced sterilization. The 2019 CSW theme was “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”
With respect to women’s reproductive health and rights, the Agreed Conclusions adopted at the 2019 CSW urge governments and other stakeholders to:
(uu) Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes, and recognizing that the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, as a contribution to the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and the realization of their human rights;
(vv) Take measures to reduce maternal, neonatal, infant and child mortality and morbidity and increase access to quality health care before, during and after pregnancy and childbirth for all women through interventions such as improving transportation and health-care infrastructure, to ensure that women can access emergency obstetric services, and training and equipping community health workers, nurses and midwives to provide basic prenatal and postnatal care and emergency obstetric care, inter alia, by providing voluntary, informed family planning and empowering women, to identify risk factors and complications of pregnancy and childbirth and facilitating their access to health facilities
Submissions to Human Rights Bodies
- December 6, 2017 IACHR hearing request
- February 9, 2018 written submission to the IACHR
- factsheet on forced sterilization of Indigenous women
- Alisa Lombard’s February 27, 2018 statement to the IACHR
- written response to IACHR Commissioners’ questions
- October 2018 submission to the Committee against Torture
- November 2018 submission to the Commission on the Status of Women
Saskatchewan Case References
- Maurice Law’s statement of claim and notice of application for class certification in the domestic litigation
- External Review: Tubal Ligation in the Saskatoon Health Region: The Lived Experience of Aboriginal Women (2017)
- news media coverage by the Globe and Mail, Global News, Toronto Star, CBC (in July 2017 and November 2018), Saskatoon StarPhoenix, CTV, National Post, and APTN
Canada’s Human Rights Obligations
- two-page overview
- American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
- Convention against Torture
- IJRC guide on Women’s Human Rights
- WHO et al., Eliminating forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary sterilization: An interagency statement (2014)
- IACHR report Access to Maternal Health Services from a Human Rights Perspective (2010)
- IACHR report Report on Justice for Women Victims of Sexual Violence: Education and Health (2011)
- IACHR report Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada (2015)
- IACHR report Legal Standards: Gender Equality and Women’s Rights (2015)
Additional Information on Human Rights Bodies
- the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the regional human rights monitoring body in the Americas. It has jurisdiction over Canada and the 34 other members of the Organization of American States. Learn more in the manual and informational video below.
- The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women is one of several dozen experts and groups of experts (“special procedures“) that the UN Human Rights Council has tasked with monitoring and reporting on specific human rights concerns around the world.
- The UN Committee against Torture is one of 10 “human rights treaty bodies” connected to UN human rights treaties, and is responsible for assessing State parties’ implementation of the Convention against Torture, including through periodic reviews and individual complaints. Canada has been a State party since 1987.
- The Universal Periodic Review is a peer review process overseen by the UN Human Rights Council, through which each UN Member State’s overall human rights record is assessed every four years.