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Understanding the History of Eugenics and Forced Sterilization in Canada

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

March 31 2022 - By Michaela Parenteau

Michaela Parenteau is an Indigenous Registered Nurse currently completing her Masters in Public Health. She works for Indigenous Services Canada providing reproductive and perinatal care to members of her community. She is currently fulfulling her practicum placement with the Northern Birthwork Collective.

In continuation from Canada’s Birth Evacuation Policy blog post, we thought it was also important to shed light on the ‘History of Eugenics and Forced Sterilization in Canada’. This post was developed to share information about dark chapters in our history, but also remind ourselves that we do not need to look very far to find violent, colonial, and unethical medical care that continues to occur across the country. Many Indigenous peoples are survivors of the Canadian health care system and are victims of reproductive injustice or obstetric violence. The purpose of this blog is to share a story that is difficult to tell and important to be told.

To those who are survivors of forced or coerced sterilization or unethical reproductive care, we stand with you and recognize your strength and resilience.

NWT Mental Health Resources:

If you would like to seek mental health supports outside of the government please reach out to us so we can seek out and support you to access this.

What is Eugenics?

Eugenics is the belief that humans can be “improved through selective breeding”. It was thought that to create a more advanced society, “undesirables” should be “weeded out” by preventing them from having children of their own. Marginalized populations were specifically targeted as they were viewed as “unfit for procreation”. Indigenous, Black and people of colour, immigrants and refugees, those living with mental illness or disabilities, individuals who are disproportionately negatively impacted by the social determinants of health, those who have had interactions with the justice system and those who identify as two-spirit, trans or non-binary were classified as “threats” to society. Concepts of eugenics are foundationally based on principles of white supremacy, assimilation, oppression, violence and colonialism. Eugenics lacks all ethical reasoning or scientific evidence to support this inhumane belief.

Widely known examples of eugenics is found in Nazi Germany where Hitler tried to “cleanse” the world of an entire population, or in Australia where experiments were conducted on Indigenous groups to determine how many generations it would take to “outbreed” the dark pigmentation from their skin. Canada's history is not innocent either.

Canada passed the Sexual Sterilization Act in Alberta and British Columbia that continued into the 1970s. This allowed physicians to forcefully sterilize those with “undesirable traits” or who were said to be “mentally defective”. In Alberta, more than 2800 people were documented to be sterilized under its mandate and approximately 400 in British Columbia over approximately 10 years that the policy was in effect. Important to note, more than half of the victims were Indigenous. Since the termination of the Policy in the 1970’s, Canada proceeded to open segregated Indian Hospitals, where sterilizations continued for the following 10 years. During this time, 1200 documented forced sterilizations occurred, however it is believed that many more Indigenous people were victims with Canada’s mainstream Hospitals. Today, coerced unconsented serializations continue to target Indigenous birthing persons – a modern day perpetuation of eugenics across the country.

What is Sterilization?

Sterilization is defined as a surgical procedure that involves removal of reproductive organs for the purpose of permanent prevention of conception. This life changing procedure more commonly affects people with uteruses and requires invasive surgery. “Getting your tubes tied” or tubal ligation is something that requires a lot of consideration as it alters the ability to carry life and permanently affects our body. This is a decision that should be made when one has a clear mind in order to understand the permanency of their choice.

Surgical procedures require ongoing discussions with the health care team to ensure that the person has received proper information about the procedure, understands the associated risks, life-long impacts are communicated, and any questions are answered clearly and accurately. Communication is necessary to ensure the client has all required information to make an informed decision about their body and reproduction. A planned surgical date should only be booked after informed consent is obtained. Informed consent is required prior to any medical intervention or procedure.

What is Forced Sterilization?

Forced sterilization is when a person has their reproductive organs removed or they are permanently damaged after refusing or not providing informed consent to the procedure. Informed consent cannot be obtained by a care provider if a person has not been provided with adequate information about the procedure or the associated harms and risks, as well as provided with the alternative options. Informed consent involves ensuring the patient has the capacity, is not impaired by duress, medication or substances and that they have had an opportunity to ask questions followed by appropriate and accurate information. Consent must be voluntary and cannot be obtained if the client has been coerced, intimidated or pressured into agreeing by those in a position of power. This could include nurses, physicians, obstetricians or gynaecologists.

Importantly, refusal of consent can include either verbal or non-verbal language. Sterilization requires informed and prior consent. If a health care provider did not receive a direct answer, it is important to clarify with the client to ensure that the wishes of the patient are respected and upheld. Silence is not an implied ‘yes’.

Reproductive Rights

Reproductive rights are said to be protected through numerous Canadian and International documents and legislation. The purpose of their creation was to end practices of eugenics and forced sterilization and prioritize safe health care and ensure reproductive rights for all. Despite these national and globally recognized frameworks striving for the eradication of immoral beliefs and unethical practices on people’s bodies, it continues. The victims of violent acts of sterilization strip birthing persons of their rights, violate their bodies and steal a sacred part of them.

Forced and coerced sterilization upholds practices of eugenics which is the premise of reproductive rights infringement, gender discrimination and well as violence against women, girls, transgender, and gender non-binary individuals. Instances of forced sterilization is primarily reported to affect Indigenous women, yet another act of systematic discrimination, oppression and colonization. It’s important for care providers to understand and acknowledge this violent practice that is both historical and present, and ensure that they have adequate cultural safety training prior to working with Indigenous communities.

All people have the right to be free from “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. To imagine a world where practices of forced sterilization still exist is absolutely heart breaking and infuriating. Indigenous bodies continue to be subjects of health care that do not honour, respect, empower, or protect them. All bodies are sacred and together we have an opportunity to advocate for reproductive justice for everyone.

If you are a victim of forced or coerced sterilization – you are strong, you are resilient, and you are never alone. The Northern Birthwork Collective welcomes your stories and remains a safe place to talk.

NWT Mental Health Resources:

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