A longtime Northern physician hopes his contribution to a new book will shed more light on the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada.
Sacred Bundles Unborn, published on Dec. 15, 2021 includes chapters from 16 contributors, including lawyers, midwives, policy makers and physicians like Dr. Ewan Affleck, who lived and worked in Yellowknife for 20 years.
The forced and co-erced sterilization of vulnerable groups to prevent their reproduction was legal in some provinces and territories until as recently as the early 1970s, with Inuit, First Nations and Métis people disproportionately targeted in the practice, according to a report published in 2019 by a Senate committee on human rights.
“It simply wasn’t discussed. Many women didn’t know about it,” said Affleck, who now lives in Edmonton but often flies to Yellowknife to work as a locum. “It was in the context of other surgeries. Some just thought they couldn’t have children, without knowing their tubes had been tied.”
Some contributors in the book say forced sterilization continues in Canada today.
Even though Affleck hasn’t witnessed sterilization or known of any doctors in the North who have performed it, he said he probably met women who had been forcibly sterilized but he wasn’t aware of it.
His chapter “The Amauti and the Noose: Reflections on Power and Birth” focuses on a period in the 1990s when he worked in the Inuit village of Salluit in northern Quebec.
When his wife was pregnant, an Elder and expert sewer in Salluit made her an amauti parka used for carrying little children.
“My son and daughter spent a lot of time in the amauti being carted around,” he said.
Affleck recalls his amazement at how welcoming members of the community were while they also struggled with inner demons.
“I saw lots of trauma resulting in mental illness, arising from colonization,” he said. “I was a fresh and naive young physician. One day I had three people come in to say they were going to commit suicide. One guy said he was going to hang himself. I asked him to bring me the noose. He did. I took it away from him and I kept it in my desk drawer for two years there.
“The amauti and noose represent the polar aspects of our time there.”
Inuit women were reportedly targeted for sterilization at particularly high rates, with 26 per cent of women in Igloolik between the ages of 30 and 50 sterilized in the 1970s, according to a chapter in the book by Senator Yvonne Boyer.
Affleck views his contribution to Sacred Bundles Unborn as raising more awareness of how the medical system has at times been more of a threat to Indigenous people than a source of healing.
“I was educated at McGill in medicine and I had no notion of the degree of trauma and the inequities and the issues that have been faced by Indigenous people in Canada,” he said. “It’s shocking that you can be trained to provide service to people when the very service you work for has had a dark history you aren’t aware of and hasn’t been discussed.”
The book came out just months after the release of The Unforgotten, a short film produced by Affleck about the harmful encounters Indigenous people have had with Canada’s healthcare system.