'All levels of the health-care system bear responsibility' for forced sterilization: proposed class action

Two Indigenous women who say they were not in the right state of mind to properly consent to a life-changing procedure are now seeking $7 million in a proposed class-action lawsuit.

2 Indigenous women say they were forced into having tubal ligation within hours of delivering a child

Two Indigenous women from Manitoba are the representative plaintiffs in a proposed class-action lawsuit that alleges they were coerced into being sterilized in Manitoba. (Ryan Cheale/CBC)

A Manitoba woman says while she was in labour at a Brandon hospital in 1985, a nurse suggested she have her tubes tied because "her life was not going well."

The woman, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, is now one of two Manitoba plaintiffs in a proposed class-action lawsuit that alleges Indigenous women across Canada endured forced or coerced sterilization, a practice that "has roots in the eugenics policies in Canada in place in the early part of the 20th century, and continues to this day."

Court documents filed at Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench in June say the woman, identified as Ms. I., was 25 years old at the time of her experience in the Brandon hospital and was about to deliver her fourth child. She is a Sixties Scoop adoptee and a member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.

Saskatchewan law firm Semaganis Worme Lombard is handling the proposed class action, in which Ms. I and another Manitoba woman, identified as Ms. P., are the representative plaintiffs.

The proposed class action alleges health-care professionals sterilized both Ms. I and Ms. P. without proper and informed consent.

While both women signed forms, they say they were not in the right state of mind to properly consent to a life changing procedure.

Both Ms. I. and Ms. P. agreed to tubal ligation either while in labour or in the hours following.

Suit alleges racial discrimination, negligence

The statement of claim names several defendants, including the federal and provincial governments, St. Boniface Hospital, all five of Manitoba's health authorities, the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons, the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba, and two unidentified people.

The proposed class action alleges health professionals were negligent, misrepresented their intentions, discriminated against the plaintiffs because of their race, and failed to provide proper care following labour and delivery.

Ms. I. and Ms. P. both allege systemic racism played a role in their coerced sterilizations.

The women say the experiences left them with mental anguish, depression, loss of self-worth as Indigenous women, and heavy menstrual cycles with debilitating pain.

"Forced sterilization is destructive to their health, family, relationships and culture," reads the statement of claim.

"All levels of the health care system bear responsibility."

A publication ban on identifying Ms. I. and Ms. P. was granted by the Court of Queen's bench on July 25.

None of the allegations in their statement of claim has been proven in court.

'Fast and confusing'

The statement of claim says after the Brandon nurse suggested Ms. I. consider tubal ligation, the plaintiff recalled saying "I don't know" and "no" to the procedure.

The document alleges that when Ms. I. was recovering after the birth of the baby, the nurse came back with a clipboard and said Ms. I. could have her tubes tied, instead of cut, and they could be untied at a later date. 

"Ms. I. recalls that the conversation was 'fast and confusing' and that she may have signed consent forms," the court document says.

Medical records show Ms. I. did sign a consent form on Dec. 26, 1985, and the tubal ligation was performed less than 24 hours later.

Ms. I. alleges no further information was given to her regarding side effects, and she was never able to have another child.

Felt pressured to consent

Ms. P. alleges she was forced into having the tubal ligation procedure at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital in 2018, when she was also 25.

She had the procedure immediately after she delivered her second child by caesarean section.

"Before the scheduled [caesarean], two health-care professionals came into Ms. P.'s room and asked her boyfriend to leave," states the court document.

"One of the health professionals told her she had 'unhealthy pregnancies' and was at risk of dying, with her baby, during the birth process.

"The health professional suggested that Ms. P. should not have any more pregnancies and encouraged her to have a tubal ligation."

The statement of claim says Ms P. felt she did not have a choice, and felt agreeing to the tubal ligation was the only way to have her baby safely delivered.

The proposed class action is seeking no less than $7 million per class member.

The class action has not yet been certified by the courts.

In addition to the Manitoba cases, separate lawsuits were previously filed in Saskatchewan and Alberta seeking class-action status on behalf of women with similar claims.

With files from Bryce Hoye