Class-action lawyer told of 2 coerced sterilizations of Indigenous women in Manitoba

A lawyer representing Indigenous women who say they were forcibly sterilized in Saskatchewan says she's heard from dozens of women with similar stories, including two incidents alleged to have happened in Manitoba hospitals.

'That does not mean that there aren't more,' says Alisa Lombard, who's representing women in Saskatchewan

Alisa Lombard says she has been told about two Manitoba women who were coerced into sterilization. (Submitted by Alisa Lombard)

A lawyer representing Indigenous women who say they were forcibly sterilized in Saskatchewan says she's heard from dozens of women with similar stories, including at least two incidents alleged to have happened in Manitoba hospitals.

In one of the Manitoba incidents, the woman took her own life 10 months after she was sterilized, said Alisa Lombard, a lawyer with Maurice Law.

The woman was involved with Child and Family Services and there are questions about whether her consent was properly informed or if it was coerced through CFS or another child welfare agency, Lombard said.

Lombard, who is representing women in a proposed class action lawsuit against the Saskatoon Health Region, said roughly 60 women in that area have told her their stories since the suit was launched by two affected women last year. The most recent situation she's heard about was from 2017.

She said she's heard from at least two women reporting incidents in Manitoba.

"There may be more reporting that they were sterilized without proper and informed consent, against their will, in Winnipeg."

The most recent Manitoba incident happened in 2009, she said.

The women in Manitoba were all from Indigenous communities outside Winnipeg, Lombard said.

The women allege they were coerced into tubal ligations — the severing, burning or tying of the Fallopian tubes that carry eggs from the ovaries to the uterus — during or after childbirth, or while seeking reproductive health services.

In many cases, the women were in labour, about to go under anesthetic for a caesarean section or already under anesthesia, Lombard said. She's heard of a case where the procedure was already in process when a health professional suggested tubal ligation to the mother.

"I think that the problem is quite a bit larger than we know it to be," Lombard said.

"And I think that it's quite a bit larger than we may, perhaps, ever know it to be, because not all women will come out and say that this happened to them."

Tubal ligations carried out on unwilling Indigenous women are among the 'most heinous' practices in health care happening across Canada, says Yvonne Boyer, a Metis lawyer and former nurse who is now a senator for Ontario. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Lombard did not rule out the possibility legal action would expand to include women in provinces other than Saskatchewan.

"I think there's always the possibility and perhaps even a likelihood," she said.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Health said the department is not aware of any reports of forced sterilization.

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority declined to comment Tuesday because there are no formal allegations against the health authority at this time.

Senator wants national study

The practice of coercive sterilization of Indigenous women has been ongoing since the 1930s, Lombard said. A federal investigation was done in the 1970s, she added, and the subject made headlines again starting in 2015.

On Monday, Ontario Sen. Yvonne Boyer said she'd like the Senate to do a national study of the issue.

"If it's happened in Saskatoon, it has happened in Regina, it's happened in Winnipeg, it's happened where there's a high population of Indigenous women," Boyer told the Canadian Press. "I've had many women contact me from across the country and ask me for help."

In the proposed class-action suit in Saskatchewan, each woman is seeking $7 million in damages.

Lombard said the suit is also seeking specific legislative changes to end the practice and address the "utter absence" of preventative measures, including the criminalization of forced sterilization. Without that, the practice is punted into civil law, Lombard said, although some courts have held it constitutes sexual battery.

"We want to stop this from happening. Before you can really mend a wound, before you can heal, you have to ensure that the offence is no longer occurring," Lombard said. "Or that at least preventative measures are put into place to ensure that its likelihood is extremely diminished."

In a written statement, federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called coerced sterilization a serious violation of human rights.

"We know that Indigenous patients can face systemic barriers in accessing medical services, including discrimination and racism," the statement says.

"We all have a role to play to ensure that Indigenous patients receive quality health care free of prejudice, including ensuring medical professionals receive cultural safety training, as laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action."

With files from Sam Samson and The Canadian Press