Review in Saskatchewan Law Review 2016 Vol.79

An Act of Genocide
Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women

By Karen Stote  

In An Act of Genocide, Karen Stote examines a controversial topic of which few Canadians are aware: the coercive sterilizations of Aboriginal women. Stote’s overarching argument is that the continual undermining of Aboriginal women and their reproductive lives through policies like coercive sterilization, the provision of birth control, and abusive abortions “has been part of a longstanding attack against Indigenous ways of life in an effort to reduce those to whom the federal government has obligations, and in order to gain access to lands and resources” (at 1). In one of her observations, Stote references one of the enumerated acts of genocide under international law – the imposition of measures to prevent births within a group – and compares it to the experiences of the Aboriginal women who were subjected to forced sterilizations.

In chapter one, Stote conducts an overview of eugenics and feminism in Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She indicates that eugenics and feminism occasionally worked hand-in-hand to perpetuate the racist notion of who belonged in society and who did not. Along those lines, Aboriginal eugenics and feminism were used to justify health initiatives, such as coercive sterilization, as a ‘means of securing land ownership, of further assimilating Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society and of denying their ability to reproduce” (at 26).

Chapter two offers an overview of Indian policy in Canada in general and as it relates to Aboriginal women in particular. Stote discusses the fact that colonialism and later the implementation of the Indian Act undermined the status of Aboriginal women through the policy of assimilation. Stote indicates that any health assistance provided by the government was often for self-serving purposes – to prevent the spread of sickness to non-natives or to fund hospitals that also treated non0-natives. Stote goes on to discuss how Aboriginal women and their sexuality were viewed as immoral and how they were “blamed for prostitution…and were generally said to represent a threat to the public” (at 40). This led to a view of Aboriginal women as unfit mothers and to a disproportionate number of Aboriginal children being put in foster care where they would grow up disconnected from their community’s way of life. Stote indicates that this historical context created the conditions in which sterilization came to be viewed as a viable public health intervention in Aboriginal communities.

The third chapter begins with an overview of the history of sterilization. Alberta and British Columbia each implemented legislation formally mandating compulsory sterilization, which was disproportionately applied to Aboriginal peoples. Alberta’s legislation remained in place from 1928 to 1972 and British Columbia’s from 1933 to 1973. In 1937, Alberta’s legislation was amended to remove the consent requirement for “mental defectiveness.” An IQ test based on specifically Western European knowledge was the primary method used to determine mental defectiveness. As such, those who were not part of that group tended to do poorly. When deemed mentally defective, a patient had little say in whether they would be sterilized. Stote indicates that other provinces considered similar legislation, but nothing ever came to fruition. That being said, the practice did take place in Ontario and Northern Canada. Stote argues that, while the federal government did not enact legislation sanctioning sterilization of Aboriginal peoples, “through its refusal to condemn the practice, by enacting polices and legislation affecting other aspects of Indigenous life that made sterilizations more likely and through its financial support, [the government] allowed sterilizations to be carried out more effectively” (at 58).

Stote then briefly discusses how birth control was also used to limit fertility. She indicates that doctors provided birth control to a disproportionately high number of Aboriginal patients. When this was brought to the attention of the government, its main concern was not with the health or protection of Aboriginal women, but instead with protecting itself from liability. A brief discussion of sterilization in the North follows in which Stote indicates that “[sterilizations] had been used on occasion as a prerequisite to obtaining an abortion” (at 76). She also indicates that while some women – those in good financial standing and mental health – were being subject to the procedure for economic reasons” (at 76). Finally, Stote analyses statistics she collected detailing the number of sterilizations that took place from 1971 to 1974.

Chapter four discusses the aftermath of the repeal of the sterilization legislation in Alberta and British Columbia. In both provinces, victims brought suit against the province for the pain and suffering they endured from their forced sterilizations. In Alberta, the government waived its statute of limitations defence and engaged in settlement negotiations with the victims. In British Columbia, on the other hand, the government used the Crown Proceedings Act of 1974 (SBC 1974, c 24), which eliminated the Crown’s immunity, to preclude the compensation from the Crown. Stote goes on to emphasize how, for the Aboriginal victims of sterilization, the problem with the individualized court process is that it enabled the government to avoid discussions of systemic issues that led to the sterilization of so many Aboriginal women in the first place.

In the final chapter, Stote discusses the international legal implications of Canada’s sterilization practices. She provides an overview of the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (9 December 1948, 78 UNTS 277), Canada’s role in the drafting of that convention, its attempts to limit the definition of genocide as it applies to Canadian law and the recourse for those who would attempt to being a claim of genocide against the Canadian government. The Genocide Convention defines genocide with a list of enumerated acts, including, in Article II (d),“mposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” within which the sterilization of Aboriginal women most clearly falls. Stote includes this discussion of international law to demonstrate the ways in which the Canadian government has attempted to avoid international legal responsibility for its actions.

An Act of Genocide provides insight into a difficult period in Canada’s history that continues to have repercussions today. Karen Stote’s work is well written and accessible to a wide range of readers. While it may not be neutral in its view of the Canadian government, Stote freely admits to this at the outset of her book, indicating that she wishes to call attention to the reality of the situation “with hopes of effecting its transformation” (at 4). She is steadfast in her criticism of the government throughout, never letting it off the hook for a second. While Stote does make the argument she set out to make, the steps forward from here are not obvious and she provides little guidance on what concrete actions can be taken to help rectify the wrongs that she shows were committed. Regardless, Stote provides insight into this period in Canadian history, and its context and leaves the reader all but convinced by her claim that the coercive sterilization so the Aboriginal women in Canada was an act of genocide.

— Morgan Grant

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