Tuesday 18 December 2018

Forcible Sterilization of Indigenous Women

Forcible Sterilization of Indigenous Women: One More Act of Genocide

In November 2018 it was reported that a group of Indigenous women in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan had brought a class-action suit against the Saskatoon Health Authority, the provincial and federal governments, and some medical professionals. These women complained that they had been forcibly sterilized, or tricked into giving consent for sterilization when they were under stress or heavily drugged. They claimed that doctors did this over several decades, as late as the 2000s.

The UN Committee on Torture has become interested in this suit, recommending in late 2018 that the Canadian government investigate all allegations of enforced sterilization and adopt legislation criminalizing it. Indigenous activists want a new law specifically outlawing forced sterilization, but the federal government argues it’s already illegal.

Canada doesn’t have a good history with regard to forced sterilization. The provinces of Albert and British Columbia forcibly sterilized people from the 1930s to the 1970s. Authorities were responding to the eugenics movement, popular among many influential Canadians. Eugenicists wanted to keep the Canadian “race” pure by sterilizing “unfit” people, which usually meant poor people, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Indigenous peoples were at disproportionate risk of sterilization. During the last few years of forcible sterilization in Alberta, Indigenous and Metis people constituted 2.5 per cent of the population but twenty-five per cent of the people sterilized.

Forced sterilizations are an aspect of genocide. We tend to think of genocide as the mass, deliberate murder of large numbers of people. But when the United Nations formulated its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide  in 1948, it defined five ways genocide could be committed.

Only one of the five means defined in the Genocide Convention is mass murder. The others are “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” “imposing measures intended to prevent births with the group,” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”  

Forced sterilization is a means to impose measures to prevent births. The “Sixties Scoop” (in the 1960s) removing thousands of Indigenous children from their families and communities, ostensibly to protect the children from abusive situations, is an example of forcibly transferring children from one group to another.

Forcible deportations are a way to deliberately inflict conditions calculated to bring about a group’s physical destruction. Canada deported several indigenous groups in the far north from their homelands to various other locations, sometimes without any food or shelter, forcing them to live “off the land” in conditions so difficult as to cause many deaths from starvation, exposure and disease. (See my post of June 18, 2018: “Genocide in the Far North: Canada 1950”) Any removal of Indigenous people anywhere in the country that resulted in a significant number of deaths might be considered genocide by deportation. 

The term genocide was originally coined in 1944 by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin wanted to include what we now call cultural genocide in the definition. He wasn’t thinking about Indigenous peoples; he was thinking of the cultural genocide of ethnic groups such as Estonians by the Nazis. He thought destruction of works of culture that represented “the genius” of a group should be a crime called vandalism, and destruction of a religious or national collectivity should be a crime called barbarism.

Although Lemkin lobbied hard for the UN to accept his definition, in the end it didn’t. If it had, we could argue that the establishment of residential schools, with their explicit policies of depriving Indigenous children of their languages, customs and cultures--as well as removing them from their communities--was an aspect of genocide, the barbarism of destroying a collectivity. We use the term cultural genocide as a descriptive term, but it isn’t part of the UN’s legal definition.

Legally speaking, moreover, the UN definition requires proof of intent to commit genocide. So if Canadian authorities didn’t intend that Indigenous women should be sterilized: if those sterilizations were the accumulated, taken-for-granted practice of many doctors over many decades, then legally, Canada wasn’t committing genocide by preventing births. Similarly, if there was no intent to destroy a community by forcibly transferring children, then the Sixties Scoop wasn’t genocide. And if there was no intent to deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about peoples’ physical destruction by deporting Indigenous peoples, then Canada wasn’t committing genocide.

But as citizens, we might want to consider our moral responsibility as well as governments’ legal responsibilities. If we add up all the ways that our governments have oppressed Indigenous peoples over the centuries, then those of us who are not Indigenous bear a weighty burden, to remedy practices that in effect, if not in intent, constituted genocide.