Coerced sterilization

As a youth in Saskatchewan and as a nurse in the healthcare system, Senator Boyer saw firsthand the discrimination and coercion faced by Indigenous women. Today, she is part of a Senate committee that is investigating the roots and solutions to this unspeakable racism.

Coerced sterilization

As a lawyer and a former nurse, Senator Boyer has devoted her professional life to the intersection between health and the law, with an emphasis on the health of Indigenous peoples. A cornerstone of her work as a lawyer and healthcare advocate has been the matter of forced and coerced sterilization, particularly for Indigenous women.

The issue is close to home. Senator Boyer was born into a Métis family in Southern Saskatchewan; growing up, her Aunt Lucy would tell stories about the ten years she spent in a sanatorium after contracting tuberculosis. These were harrowing tales about life in a sanatorium and disparities in treatment based on race, and the abuse that some patients suffered at the hands of their doctors. Aunt Lucy’s records were destroyed, so it’s unknown whether she was sterilized, but she was never able to bear children.

Many of Senator Boyer’s relatives were healers and healthcare providers, and when she finished high school she became a nurse. Working in small, 50-bed facilities, Senator Boyer was stunned to see the same patterns of institutionalized abuse that her aunt had described back in the 1920s and ’30s. In her first speech in the Senate chamber, in September 2018, Senator Boyer described the rising anger she felt at what she was seeing: “The institutionalized racism and the candid comments made to me because the racists thought I was like them, as they spoke of my sisters, my aunties and my brothers, and how those Indian women should be sterilized to prevent them from breeding—those words haunt me to this day.”

Senator Boyer decided to take action and went back to school and earned Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees in law while opening her own practice. Then, in 2015, she received a call from a reporter at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix asking for a comment on a story. Two Indigenous women had contacted the reporter to claim that they had been sterilized against their will immediately after a caesarian section birth at a Saskatoon Health Region (SHR) hospital. After the story was published, SHR asked Senator Boyer to conduct an external review of its postpartum tubal ligation procedures. In July 2017, she and Dr. Judith Bartlett released their report, which details the intimidation, harassment, psychological pressure and coercion faced by several Indigenous women who gave birth and were subsequently sterilized at SHR facilities.

Three months later, two of the women launched a class-action lawsuit against the Saskatoon Health Region. Over 100 women have since joined the suit, and Senator Boyer is now at the forefront of an investigation into the matter in Canada and is a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Right that has been investigating this issue to determine the depth and scope of the problem and to provide recommendations for future work. “This situation smacks of racism in healthcare, guardian and ward theory, and the medical profession thinking they know what is best for Indigenous women,” Senator Boyer said in her Senate chamber speech. “I believe it is our responsibility to speak for those who have no voice.”

Photo credit: iStock

Coerced sterilization