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Book Review: Making the case for genocide aimed at Aboriginal women

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Few titles catch a reader’s eye more than Karen Stote’s new book An Act of Genocide; Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women.
It is an extension of her Governor General’s Gold Medal Award for Academic Excellence in Graduate Studies-nominated doctoral thesis An Act of Genocide: Eugenics, Indian Policy and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women in Canada, published in 2012.
The book, published this year by Fernwood Publishing, is an examination of Canadian policy of altering birthing practices often without consultation of impoverished, marginalized Aboriginal women throughout the 20th century, and the argument that it constitutes a crime of genocide.
“The imposition of measures to prevent births within a group constitutes an enumerated act of genocide under international law, yet the sterilization of Aboriginal women is not generally considered within this context,” Stote writes.
“Even though genocide is not likely to arise in Canadian courts this does not negate the fact that when it is understood within its broader historical and material context, it is a proper descriptor of the treatment of Aboriginal women and their peoples.”
Stote is the assistant professor in Women and Gender Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and she completed her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of New Brunswick in 2012.
The book is a fascinating read and is best enjoyed and digested if one takes its time with the chapters. Stote is an apt researcher and charts a concise historical path from the early 1900s when eugenics was a more commonly accepted form of population control through genocide in the second half of the 20th century. Along the road, she criticizes Canadian policy towards First Nations, Metis and Inuit people using primary source documents and first-hand accounts.
It’s a heavy read, but a good one that Canadian schools would do well to incorporate into their history classes.
The book begins with a chapter on the eugenics movement in the early 1900s and the ironic role that Anglo Saxon feminism played in its promotion. Stote details how the rises in immigration, industry and urbanization led political theorists of the time in Canada to come up with ways to curb populations by eugenic interventions like sterilizations.
The movement led the provinces of BC and Alberta to adopt sterilization acts that the first female magistrate court judge Emily Murphy lobbied for.
“Murphy viewed sterilization as a useful means of protecting women and children from sexual attack, of ending the crippling expense of incarceration and of promoting the mental and physical betterment of the race,” writes Stote.
Predictably and tragically, Onkwehón:we women were often caught in this process of “betterment,” which the patriarchal government of the day would also suggest was for their health.
“Rather than consider how recently imposed colonial conditions might impact the ability of Indigenous women to give birth safely, high infant mortality rates were used to justify the increased medicalization of Native bodies,” writes Stote.
The picture emerges as one of a colonial government moving west, and disrupting Indigenous communities, causing starvation, malnutrition and other detrimental health affects. That same government then forced those very communities to comply with destructive medical practices.
In a phrase: colonization, manipulation and destruction.
“The ultimate goal of health care policy was to turn Aboriginal peoples into citizens to whom the federal government no longer had obligations or responsibilities, and it was hoped that Aboriginal peoples would take fiscal responsibility for their own health care,” writes Stote. “In effect, they were being asked to pay for their own assimilation and disenfranchisement as Aboriginal peoples.”
“Sterilization, Birth Control and Abusive Abortions” is the central and most powerful chapter of the book. It is not easy to read at times, and casts Canada’s policy at best as indifferent, and at worst, genocidal.
“The federal government fell short of enacting legislation directly sanctioning the sterilization of Aboriginal peoples, but through its refusal to condemn the practice, by enacting policies and legislation affecting other aspects of Indigenous life that made sterilizations more likely and through its financial support, it allows sterilizations to be carried out more effectively,” writes Stote.
Stote includes charts of the numbers of women sterilized in various Aboriginal communities, and adds details about conditions the Canadian state allowed to persist. It’s a damning indictment of Canadian policy that remains unknown to many in the greater Canadian public.
Stote does not mince words when it comes to who should take responsibility.
“This responsibility is found with the federal government, which from all appearances has had as its unwritten purpose the bureaucratic elimination of Aboriginal peoples, by one means or another, since its very inception,” she writes.
These are powerful words that require research and proof to make. Stote has done the research and she writes the proof throughout the book.
The final chapters address the notion of settling the past, and examining Canada’s laws against genocide, and whether it is guilty of such a crime in relation to the policies meant to have an adverse affect on Onkwehón:we populations.
There is so much information in the book that to recount it in detail is a tall task.
The book is important because it gives a voice to those who had none or whose voices weren’t understood. It is heartbreaking to read of women going to a person meant to help them, only to find out later that those doctors took away their ability to have offspring.
The book is research that should be read, digested, discussed and replied to across the country.

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