Two Aboriginal women have received an apology from the Saskatoon Health Region after going public with stories of being pressured to undergo sterilization.
Brenda Pelletier and Tracy Bannab's accounts of being pushed to consent to tubal ligation surgeries were first reported this week by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Both stories, one author says, must be seen in the context of a long history of forced sterilization of indigenous women in Canada.
For Pelletier, the pressure was enough to get her to sign the consent form — a decision the 39-year-old regrets years later as she grapples with its physical and emotional consequences.
She had just given birth to her seventh child in 2010 at Royal University Hospital when a social worker, nurses, and a doctor pressured her into signing a consent form for the procedure, she said. It appeared they didn't want to discharge her until her tubes were tied.
"Constantly, like every couple hours. I don't know if it was two hours or three hours but it was non-stop, all day, all night," Pelletier told CBC. "Like right up until you better sign that, the operating room's ready."
Pelletier told the StarPhoenix the social worker told her seven children was enough, and that she should be happy with what she had because some women couldn't have children at all. The next day, a nurse informed her that an operating room was being prepared for the surgery, and the social worker returned with a doctor, who also encouraged Pelletier to sign the form.
"I was tired and frustrated and I signed it against my will to get them to leave me alone," she said.
Pelletier was vocal about not wanting to go through with the procedure — she made it clear even while lying on the operating table, she recalls. Then, she says, she smelled something burning, which came as a shock since her impression was that it would only involved clamps. The anaesthesiologist explained that they were just "burning the ends."
"If I could have jumped off that table, I probably would have," she told CBC.
A week after the procedure, she came back to the hospital because she was hemorrhaging, and to this day, she continues to deal with painful, heavy periods.
Pelletier's mother had been taking care of her other six children in a different community. As a recovering addict, she was determined to raise her newborn daughter on her own, but knew she didn't want her to be an only child.
After getting back in touch with her old friend Tracy Bannab, Pelletier discovered she wasn't alone in her experience. Bannab had just given birth to her ninth child in 2012 when three family support program workers and a nurse tried persuading her to undergo tubal ligation surgery, leaving only after her obstetrician arrived and told them to leave her alone.
"Now I'm 39 and it's hitting me. I'm still angry. How many other girls have they done this to?" Pelletier said.
The Saskatoon Health Region plans to have an outside reviewer look into the incidents and to make any recommendations public.
"I truly am sorry for the experience that these women had. I regret that they felt the way they did in our care," vice-president of integrated services Jackie Mann told the StarPhoenix. "It would not be acceptable for a patient to feel they were being coerced or that they were being badgered." The hospital did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
As a result of Pelletier and Bannab coming forward, the health region is putting in place a new policy. Women will only have tubal ligation surgery after a vaginal delivery if the decision to have the procedure is made in advance.
"We applaud the courage of these two women in coming forward, are grateful for the opportunity to hear firsthand their experiences, and have thanked them for inspiring this change in procedure," Mann added.
But Yvonne Boyer, author of Moving Aboriginal Health Forward: Discarding Canada's Legal Barriers, is not surprised this occurred to Aboriginal women.
"For them, it's very difficult to speak up," she said told VICE News.
According to a 2006 report written by Boyer for the National Aboriginal Health Organization, for example, 2,800 people were sterilized between 1929 and 1972 under the province's Sexual Sterilization Act, which was "intended to stop 'mental defectives' from having children."
In 1937, it was amended to include "individuals incapable of intelligent parenthood" and to ensure consent from patients was no longer required. A subsequent review of the files that hadn't been destroyed by the Alberta government in 1988 found Aboriginal peoples had been disproportionately targeted.
"The question is who determines who is mentally defective?" asks Boyer, who says stories like Pelletier and Babban's are common among indigenous women across the country. "As this story hits throughout the country, you'll hear people saying, 'That happened to me.'"
Boyer says change must start in medical and nursing schools.
"They need to teach students about the history of colonialism and … why we have people who are vulnerable, living in poverty, in such dire circumstances," she says. "They need to understand this, and when they're dealing with their patients, to look at it with some compassion."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk