In 2015, several Indigenous women in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, reported to the media that they had received tubal ligations without their consent, rendering them unable to have more children. This led to an independent investigation by the Saskatoon Health Region, where more women disclosed that they too had been coercively or forcibly sterilized.
As media coverage of the issue increased, more Indigenous women courageously broke their silence and reported that they too had involuntarily sterilized. In 2017, a class action lawsuit representing some of the women was filed. In 2018, the United Nations Committee on Torture affirmed that sterilization without consent is a form of torture and called on Canada to take urgent steps to end the practice and ensure redress for survivors.
To date, over 100 Indigenous women, from all over Canada, have come forward to Alisa Lombard, the lawyer leading the class action lawsuit. Some of the women signed consent forms under duress. Some did not sign consent forms. Most were sterilized via tubal ligation, but some, like Dene-Métis-Athabasca Chipewyan storyteller, author, actor, and activist Morningstar Mercredi, were subjected to forced abortion and removal of an ovary.
At age 13, Morningstar was raped, became pregnant, went to a hospital after she experienced spotting, and underwent a termination she did not consent to. The procedure involved removal of one of her ovaries. She later had one son but was not able to have more children after an ectopic pregnancy at age 19. Morningstar wanted to have more children, and decades later, the impacts of having her fertility taken away from her are profound.
Rather than interview Morningstar and asking her to re-live her trauma once again, with her permission, we have included an excerpt from her memoir, Morningstar: A Warrior’s Spirit.
After my fourteenth birthday, I began hemorrhaging. I phoned a girlfriend and told her what was happening; she told me to go to hospital immediately. I phoned a taxi and left…
The doctor had to operate to remove a cyst. So he said.
I lie on the table in pain, floating over my body. The doctor is disgusted and annoyed as he reaches for a scalpel. An obese nurse nods. He takes the scalpel and slices my flesh open a few centimetres beneath my belly button, haphazardly cutting my skin deeply to my panty line. A young nurse looks up at him with shock but seems afraid to say anything while the senior nurse coldly watches over. My skin is pulled apart and the doctor examines my womb. The young nurse appears shocked by his unprofessional malice. Within seconds he has removed a tiny foetus and my left ovary. The young nurse, appalled, looks to her senior nurse for understanding but is ignored. Both nurses are ordered to clean up. Blood is sponged and the ten-centimetre cut is closed with crude stitches.
My tiny unborn baby is carried away. I’m watching the doctor, floating above and feeling his anger and racism toward me, wondering why. I know he is justifying his actions. He doesn’t think another Indian girl should bear children, and in his mind, he is doing society a favour. The young nurse leaves the operating room in tears; the senior nurse remains smug in support of the doctor’s procedure.
After the operation, I lay in bed afraid, alone, and lonely.
[six weeks later]
The next day she took me to a doctor to ensure that I was ok. I sat in the doctor’s office after he examined me. His eyes became teary as he looked at me with sincere empathy. He asked what the incision on my abdomen was from, which he said was healing well. I said nothing.
He said that in his professional opinion there was no medical reason for any doctor to make incisions so haphazardly or bluntly. I still wouldn’t respond. Both he and a nurse encouraged me to talk. They told me I had had a nervous breakdown. They pleaded with me to tell them what happened. I looked at him.
My mind spiraled into the crevices of my childhood. The sexual abuse, the hopelessness, rapes, drugs, alcohol, men, and homelessness. Vivid images of being butchered during the operation. I subconsciously held my breath as I thought about what the surgeon had said to me after the operation: “Your chance of becoming pregnant is less than that of an average woman.”
I knew it hadn’t been a dream.
These memories and images cascading in front of my eyes in merciless damnation, I whispered to the doctor and nurse, “I was born. That’s what happened.”
NOTE: Excerpts from Morningstar’s memoir, written in 2004, were written based on what she could remember at that time. Morningstar describes observing herself – out of body – during the surgery. Morningstar could not talk about what happened until she was in her fifties when her PTSD was triggered forty years later, she knew she received a doctor’s note confirming her pregnancy in her home community before she decided to leave to have her baby.
She was 27-30 weeks pregnant when an abortion was performed and her left ovary removed without her consent, or her parents’, although she was told her mom had been reached, which was untrue. The reference to a cyst was fabricated by the doctor when she asked what was wrong. At age fourteen, alone in the hospital, she had no one to advocate for her, hospital staff did not contact authorities, police or social services on her behalf before or after surgery.