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Canadian doctors decide whether Indigenous women are fit to be mothers

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Last August, when I was in the middle of covering the federal election, I got an email from W5 about a story they needed my help with — the forced sterilization of Indigenous women.

While I was excited to expose what was happening to women in my community, this story had a sad, familiar ring to me. A few years ago, my sister Jackie told me that she was sterilized against her will after she gave birth to my nephew Darian. She didn’t find out until many years later. At the time she says her doctor did not want to be associated with the findings and told her to get another test at another place for fear of losing his job.

Like my sister’s story, the same disturbing pattern emerged when I talked with other Indigenous women who said they were forced to get sterilized.

During labour there was a complication that required a C-section. The women signed a consent form for that surgery, but minutes before, and sometimes even on route to the OR, their doctor added tubal ligation.  

Now remember, these are women in full labour, panicked about the health of their baby, at their most vulnerable, and only given minutes to consent to a permanent, life altering procedure.

Melika Popp, one of the women I interviewed for the story, described how she felt when her doctor added tubal ligation to her consent form.

“It didn't really feel at the time I had the option of saying no. Like these doctors are there to help me, I believed it at the time. And I believe I was in survival mode,” she said.

Melika Popp speaks with W5Melika is one of the lead plaintiffs in a proposed class action lawsuit for the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan.

Her lawyer Alisa Lombard said over a hundred women have contacted her since the class action was launched in 2017.

While Lombard is passionate about getting justice for her clients, she also said it’s “terribly sad. There was a time that for months on end, you know, I would get calls probably every other day.”

Today there are 5 proposed class actions in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec involving thousands of Indigenous women, according to Lombard.

Many of the women who said they were sterilized against their will come from Saskatchewan.

W5 reached out to the doctors named in the proposed class action lawsuit in that province, but their lawyer said because the matter is still before the courts they couldn't comment on the case.  

We also contacted Paul Merriman, Saskatchewan’s health minister. He said he wouldn’t appear on camera, but in a statement said, “a new tubal ligation consent policy and procedure was made effective as of June 16, 2021.”

Finally, Canada’s attorney general was named in Lombard’s proposed class actions in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the 1970s, the federal government ran an “Indian hospital” where, according to hospital records, 1,150 Indigenous women were sterilized.

The attorney general also declined W5’s request for an interview, but Patty Hajdu, minister of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) along with her office replied with statements that said they’re working with provincial governments to "increase safety and respect for Indigenous women in Canada’s health care system."

ISC also mentioned giving funds to several Indigenous women’s organizations including: The Native Women’s Association of Canada, National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health and Indigenous midwives and doulas. Finally, they said they pledged an additional $126.7 million over the next three years.

But promises from provincial and federal governments do little to reassure Melika Popp and Alisa Lombard.

Melika said she believes the forced sterilization of Indigenous women is still happening in Canada today and that’s why she agreed to share her story with W5.

“I just don't want any woman to ever experience this kind of violation, this kind of…sadness, you know, with this feeling of not being complete as a woman,” she said.

Lombard acknowledged that some people still hold the misconception that Indigenous women don’t make good mothers and that might be why their doctors think they should be sterilized.  

When I asked her what she thought of people who believed Indigenous women can’t look after their children, she said, "Honestly, I would thank them, for exhibiting the very types of prejudices and stereotypes that give rise to the problem to begin with."

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