12/19/2018 17:37 EST | Updated 01/30/2019 22:59 EST

Lawsuit Brought Against Alberta On Coerced Sterilization Of Indigenous Women

It seeks $500 million in damages, plus an additional $50 million in punitive damages.

Liam Richards/CP
Deb Ironbow, who was coerced into having her fallopian tubes tied in 1995, is seen in Saskatoon on Dec. 15, 2018. In addition to the suit against the Alberta government, a proposed class action against Saskatchewan is also underway.

OTTAWA — A proposed class action has been filed against the government of Alberta on behalf of Indigenous women who say they were subjected to forced sterilizations.

The lawsuit seeks $500 million in damages, plus an additional $50 million in punitive damages, and has been brought on behalf of all Indigenous women sterilized in Alberta without their prior and informed consent before Dec. 14 this year.

The claim alleges Alberta — including senior officials and ministers— had specific knowledge of widespread coerced sterilizations perpetrated on Indigenous women.

It also alleges the government ignored that conduct and breached its fiduciary responsibilities.

Nothing in the claim has been tested in court.

'She did not consent to this surgery'

"As a result of the defendant's acts and omissions, Indigenous women suffered ... physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and psychologically," the statement of claim says. "Coerced sterilization has been destructive to their health, family, relationships and culture."

The statement of claim also refers to the proposed representative plaintiff May Sarah Cardinal, and a sterilization procedure she allegedly underwent in a northern Alberta hospital in December 1977.

It says Cardinal was 20 years old and married when she went to the hospital to give birth to her second child, and she and her husband wanted to have more. It says the people treating her told her a doctor had decided she should be sterilized so as not to have more children.

"She did not consent to this surgery," the statement of claim says. "There was no valid medical reason for the surgery."

This court action is a powerful and practical means for finally achieving access to justice for the victims.Celeste Poltak, lawyer

Celeste Poltak, a lawyer with the Toronto-based firm Koskie Minsky LLP, said coerced sterilization of Indigenous women is "yet another dark chapter" in the relationship between governments and Indigenous Peoples.

"This court action is a powerful and practical means for finally achieving access to justice for the victims," she said in a statement. "The litigation of this claim will afford the government an opportunity to both examine the failings that permitted this situation and provide meaningful compensation to the victims."

Poltak's firm, which is working alongside Edmonton-based firm Cooper Regel, notes Alberta's Sexual Sterilization Act explicitly authorized forced sterilizations in the province until 1972.

After it was repealed, doctors and nurses in Alberta continued to perform coerced sterilizations, the firm said, alleging these actions were a product of systemic and institutional racism.

A proposed class action is also underway in Saskatchewan by Indigenous-owned firm Maurice Law. It names the Saskatoon Health Authority, the Saskatchewan government, the federal government and a handful of medical professionals as defendants.

It was launched in 2017 by two women, each claiming $7 million in damages.

Calls for investigation

Earlier this month, Canada was ordered by the United Nations Committee Against Torture to stop the "extensive forced or coerced sterilization" of Indigenous women and girls — a finding that prompted calls for additional federal action by human-rights groups and the federal NDP.

The committee said all allegations, including recent ones made in Saskatchewan, must be investigated impartially, and those responsible held to account. The state needs to take legislative and policy measures to stop women from being sterilized against their will, the committee said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his government's response.

During a roundtable interview with The Canadian Press on Friday, Trudeau called the practice "heinous" while he stressed the importance of a working group of senior officials to oversee measures to improve cultural safety in health systems.

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