Ongoing concerns about coerced sterilization of Indigenous women is nothing short of a "crisis" that warrants a public inquiry, says a prominent Alberta First Nations leader.
In an interview, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said concerns were brought directly to his attention by a member of his community north of Fort McMurray.
He fears others could have been affected, maybe without their knowledge.
"You see it — there's others in the community that appear to be having the same symptoms without nobody knowing why and nobody questions anything," he said. "You tend to wonder, was it done to them without their consent, without them knowing?"
A public inquiry is necessary to ensure politicians deal with the issue "once and for all," Adam added.
"I am deeply sorry in regards to what has happened," he said, aiming that message at victims.
Morningstar Mercredi, an Indigenous author from Adam's community who says she had a pregnancy terminated and her left ovary and Fallopian tube removed against her will in the mid-1970s in Saskatoon, said she hopes more leaders speak out.
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"We are talking about our women and children," she said.
She also said she personally took comfort knowing her own chief was addressing the issue publicly, after she approached him about doing so.
"He took a stand in a supportive manner and I trust he will use his role as a leader in the most effective, proactive manner that would ensure coerced sterilization of Indigenous women is not permitted to continue," she said. "I think he's a good example."
The chief's comments come as the federal government tries to pull together officials from the provinces and territories this month to discuss the issue. Quebec has already indicated it is not willing to participate.
Stopping coerced sterilizations must be part of reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples, Adam said, adding he wants to see the Liberal government act to amend the Criminal Code to make it a specifically defined crime. In December, chiefs at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa also passed a resolution to politically support changes to the Criminal Code to explicitly criminalize forced sterilization.
"Mr. Trudeau has to come out and do what's right because this has been going on too long and somebody has to correct the problem," Adam said. "It is a violation of human rights."
The federal government has so far rejected the push to change the Criminal Code, saying existing provisions forbid a range of criminal behaviour including coerced sterilization. Currently, a provision on involuntary termination of pregnancies and another on aggravated assault applies to anyone "who wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life of the complainant."
Alisa Lombard, a lawyer leading a proposed class action of Indigenous women who allege they endured coerced sterilizations in Saskatchewan, has said that explicitly outlawing coerced sterilization is the most concrete step the federal government can take in response to the grave allegations.
For its part, the federal NDP has urged that the RCMP immediately launch an investigation into all allegations of forced and coerced sterilizations in Canada, suggesting multiple, credible allegations of crimes have been made.
Morningstar said it was critical for Adam to communicate he believes the women coming forward with allegations, adding she also supports the push to outlaw coerced sterilization explicitly.
"One would think ... why is the government not doing absolutely everything necessary to protect Indigenous women?" she said. "Shame on you, Canada."