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Sterilization victims urged to come forward

Author: 
Sabrina Whyatt, Windspeaker Staff Writer, YELLOWKNIFE
Volume: 
16
Issue: 
4
Year: 
1998

Page 5

The Government of the NorthWest Territories has designed a program to encourage sterilization victims to come forward.

About 2,800 women were sterilized without their permission under the Sexual Sterilization Act between 1928 and 1972. Another 400 women were sterilized in British Columbia under the same law. The act was then repelled.

The procedure was performed if the patients were diagnosed with mental deficiencies. It was ordered by a eugenics board that believed sterilization was the best way to prevent producing defective children.

Many of these patients were sterilized at Edmonton's Charles Camsell Hospital, which was mainly used to treat Aboriginal people. The hospital was operated by the federal government and closed in April 1996.

The NorthWest Territories government is offering support to Aboriginal women in the province through a program where victims can start an inquiry if they believe they've been wrongfully sterilized.

The program regards highly the confidentiality of the victims, and so far there has been one inquiry, said Joan Irwin, executive assistant of Department of Health and Social Services Minister Kelvin Ng.

"We purposely designed it this way where people can call us, instead of going out and finding victims. It's out of respect for people's privacy," she said.

Irwin said the territorial government plans to deal with the situation on a case-by-case basis.

"If a woman who suspects she has been wrongfully sterilized comes forward, the government will provide her with help in gathering information about her situation and how her consent should have been given before she was sterilized. The inquiries will be dealt with on the merits of each case," said Irwin.

The probe into the sterilization cases began in the NorthWest Territories last month after Yellowknife North MLA Roy Erasmus disclosed information that some women from the area had been involuntarily sterilized.

"Priest Rene Fumoleau, who's now retired, wrote me a letter indicating some women from Denendeh came to him with concerns of why they weren't having any more children. When it was checked out, they found since their last child was delivered at the Charles Camsell Hospital, they were sterilized," said Erasmus.

The letter also stated many of the Aboriginal women at the Edmonton hospital were "not sick or retarded, or in any other dangerous situation."

The Alberta government has paid out almost $50 million to 500 people who were wrongfully sterilized under the sterilization law. In 1996, an Alberta woman, Leilani Muir, was compensated near $1 million after a court ruled in her favor that she was wrongly sterilized in a mental institution in Red Deer in 1959. Later tests showed she had no mental defect.

The Alberta government hasn't taken part in the N.W.T. inquiry, but is in the process of forming a claim settlement review panel to assist claimants.

Alberta Justice Minister Jon Havelock couldn't be reached for comment, but the department's director of communications, Peter Tadman, said the panel will work with any remaining sterilization victims not included in the $50 package to negotiate a settlement outside the courts.

He said the government anticipates about 300 outstanding claims, and "it is not certain how many of the cases involve Aboriginal women."

Gary McPherson, who will chair the five-member panel, said it is an option for claimants to reach a financial settlement.

"They are not obligated to use the panel, but it will be set up for claimants to get a quicker settlement. My guess is that a lot of people will use it," said McPherson.

If claimants choose not to use the panel, they have the option to resolve their case with a government-appointed mediator, or they can proceed through the courts.

McPherson said he anticipates the panel to be up and running in the fall.

Similar sterilization laws existed in Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Sweden and the United States.

In the U.S. from 1972 o 1978, more than 3,400 Aboriginal women were sterilized without their consent to control population on the reservations. At the same time, rates of induced abortions doubled. Between 1970 and 1980, sterilization rates tripled.

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