Cindy Gladue case: a reminder the justice system is broken for Aboriginal women

Not-guilty verdict in murder trial sparks protests in Edmonton and across Canada
Photo: Thien

Warning: This article contains disturbing descriptions of violence.

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Cindy Gladue did not consent to a violent death.

Gladue, a 36-year-old Cree woman, was found dead on June 22, 2011, in a hotel off the Yellowhead Highway in Edmonton. She had bled out from a severe vaginal wound.

After a month-long trial in Edmonton, Bradley Barton, a truck driver from Ontario accused of killing Gladue, received a not-guilty verdict on charges of first-degree murder and manslaughter.

Gladue had been repeatedly penetrated vaginally. The Crown argued that Barton had assaulted her, with his hand or with an object, causing an 11-cm-long wound in her vaginal wall. Shockingly, the prosecution showed the preserved vagina to the jury to demonstrate the extent of the injury, marking the first time in Canadian history that a body part has been brought into court. This action goes against most Indigenous concepts of respect and honour of the deceased, and the desecration of Gladue's body for court evidence did not even assist in producing a conviction.

The defence argued that Gladue sustained the injury during consensual rough sex. A jury then decided that Barton was not responsible for her death because she had given consent.

Though Alberta has many legal precedents concerning sexual assault and statutory rape, these do not seem to extend to Aboriginal women. Alberta courts have a history of ruling in favour of white men over underage or underprivileged women.

Three precedents in law should have resulted in a conviction for Barton. One, no matter what a person consents to, it is not legal to harm anyone. No one can legally consent to extreme bodily harm or damage even if they request it. Second, a person cannot give consent if under the influence of alcohol or drugs. At the time of her death, Gladue's blood alcohol level was four times over the legal limit. Finally, individuals should be held accountable, regardless of intention, for physical harm they do to someone else. That, at the very least, is manslaughter.

For the prosecution, this case should have been easily winnable.

Maybe Bradley Barton had an outstanding lawyer. More likely, racism against Aboriginal people, which remains prevalent in the prairies as elsewhere, influenced the verdict. Not one Indigenous person sat on the jury.

The court decision has sparked today's rallies across the country. Many observers are saying the case shows the judicial system's lack of regard and respect for Indigenous people, especially the many missing and murdered women. In a colonial country, the system protects those who perpetrate violence against Indigenous women.

Already seen as "less than" because she was an Aboriginal woman, Gladue had another strike against her due to her involvement in the sex trade. This double dehumanization helps explain the astounding court decision.

This type of thinking makes justice fail for Indigenous women more often than for other people in Canada. This is why so many of us treated poorly, why we are subjected to more predatory behaviour from men during our lifetimes, why we suffer higher rates of abuse and assault per capita than anyone else. No one is held responsible for violence committed against us, even when caught in broad daylight.

In the case of Cindy Gladue, the evidence is there, and yet there is no justice. That this happens in a modern system is unforgivable. There has to be an appeal. There has to be justice for a woman who did not ask to die, or the safety and right to life of all Aboriginal women is imperiled. No matter our situation, no matter what consent we give, we do not deserve death.

Indigenous bodies, our bodies, must no longer be desecrated by courts that deny us justice.

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