“As a woman in this country, sometimes I think the real question is: When do we start rioting?” St. John’s author Elisabeth de Mariaffi wrote in an impassioned March 21 blog post.
Responding to the acquittal by an Alberta court earlier that week of Bradley Barton in the 2011 death of Cindy Gladue, de Mariaffi’s words embodied the mounting outrage among people across Canada who are learning the gruesome details of how Gladue, 36 and a mother, sister, daughter and aunt, wound up dead in an Edmonton motel room bathtub after bleeding to death from an 11-centimetre wound inside her vagina.
That night the room was rented to Barton, a truck driver from Ontario who reported Gladue’s death in a frantic 911 call the morning after he brought her back to the room. During the trial a Crown prosecutor argued Gladue was unable to consent to sexual activity because her blood alcohol level was four times the legal driving limit, and that Barton had intentionally inflicted the wound on Gladue using either a sharp object or excessive thrusting before leaving her to bleed to death. Barton’s attorney, however, argued Gladue’s wound was accidental, a result of rough but consensual manual stimulation.
“No one consents to that level of violence,” de Mariaffi wrote in her blog post.
“The almost all-male, all-white jury took only a day and a half to come to their decision. I hear news like this and get despondent. Cindy Gladue also had a life. She also had a story.”
Speaking to The Independent on Monday de Mariaffi called Gladue’s death “a stark miscarriage of justice” and the acquittal “really shocking.” She also said she doesn’t normally “blog in this way,” but that, after acting on her compulsion, the post wound up being read and shared “much more widely” than she expected. “It took me by surprise.”
Among the readers was Edmonton resident Fawn Lamouche, who said she read several similar blog posts in the days following the verdict and Barton’s acquittal.
“I felt angry and hurt that he had gotten away with this, and that there was no justice for Cindy or her family,” she said during a phone interview Monday.
Lamouche organized a demonstration that will take place outside the Edmonton Law Courts on Thursday to call for an appeal and retrial of the case. She said she has also reached out to Gladue’s family, who she said is “very touched” that people nationwide are standing up for justice for Cindy and all Indigenous women in Canada.
Within hours people in other towns and cities began organizing solidarity events, including demonstrations and vigils. At the time of this article’s publication, 14 demonstrations nationwide have been planned for Thursday, including one in St. John’s at noon outside the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador on Duckworth Street.
An online petition calling for the same has been launched on Change.org. It has more than 2,100 signatures so far and will be sent to Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis once 2,500 people have added their names.
There are 16 days remaining for Carole Godfrey, the Crown prosecutor in the case, to initiate an appeal for a retrial.
Renewed calls for a national public inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis
In Canada, at least 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered since 1990 — three to four times the number of non-Indigenous women.
Last week in a Happy Valley-Goose Bay courtroom details emerged of the murder of Bernice Rich, a 21-year-old Mushuau Innu First Nation woman whose body was found in a wooded area in the central Labrador community of Sheshatshiu in July 2013. Gordon Milley, 32, of Natuashish pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and faces life in prison.
In April the Loretta Saunders murder trial is set to begin in Halifax. Saunders, a 26-year-old Labrador Inuk originally from Hopedale, was found dead near the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick in late February 2014, two weeks after she went missing from Halifax, where she was researching missing and murdered Indigenous women at Saint Mary’s University. Blake Leggette and Victoria Hennebury, who were subletting an apartment from Saunders, face first-degree murder charges.
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Amelia Reimer, a cultural support worker at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, has been outspoken on Canada’s handling of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The Gladue murder case verdict “tells us again in very plain terms, in the eyes of the court and the eyes of the government: women don’t matter, Aboriginal women don’t matter, and sex trade workers don’t matter — [they are] not deserving of human rights, human decency,” she said in a written statement to The Independent.
“What a woman does to earn an income should not give her any less right to live,” she continued. “Canada eliminated the death penalty on July 14, 1976, but women all over are still facing their own death sentence, and no support or protection from Ottawa. A national inquiry needs to be looking at why men are murdering Aboriginal women with such impunity.”
“Dehumanization” and marginalization big part of a big problem
Gladue was a sex industry worker and was working at the time of her death.
Sex workers in Canada are marginalized by social stigma and Canada’s justice system, their labour criminalized under federal laws, which critics say creates dangerous working conditions for those in the industry.
Jenny Wright, Executive Director of the St. Jon’s Status of Women Council, says the tendency to think of members of marginalized groups like Indigenous women and sex workers as “other than us” is at the root of their continued oppression.
“That’s part of the process of dehumanization and seeing people as not valued,” she explains. “People who have a moral judgment around the sex trade feel that those women do not have the same rights under the constitution as everyone else, that they don’t have the same rights to safety — and we create laws and structures and barriers that push them farther and father underground, farther in harm’s way, and we further dehumanize them by giving them zero voice.
There was not a single person that said, tell me about that person, where did that person come from, how old was that person, what were their hopes and dreams? — Jenny Wright, St. John’s Status of Women Council
“When they want to speak out they’re not invited into our spaces, they’re seen as ‘others’ — and I see we do this traditionally with sex workers, but also with Indigenous women…with women of colour, and we see this very clearly with trans folks too.”
Wright says dehumanization was evident in the media reports last year after the St. John’s Women’s Centre’s Safe Harbour Outreach Project issued a warning to sex workers that a series of gang rapes of their colleagues had taken place in a St. John’s hotel — though due to the circumstances beyond their control the victims, both female and male, did not report the incidents to police.
“People were more interested in the judgment or the salacious details of the act than they were of the human beings who experienced that violence,” Wright recalls. “In all the interest that came there was not a single person that said, tell me about that person, where did that person come from, how old was that person, what were their hopes and dreams? Instead it was just like, you know, those people are sex workers so they’re [not] human and they essentially got what they deserved because of the bad choices that they made.”
Despite the fact sex workers and Indigenous women are statistically more likely to experience violence, including murder, than women outside the sex industry and non-Indignous women, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has downplayed the problem and has repeatedly denied nationwide calls for a public inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Last fall he denied outright the existence of any kind “sociological phenomenon” related to violence against Indigenous women.
Critics say acknowledging the problem would force Canada to confront its ongoing systemic colonial violence toward Aboriginal Peoples, reform or abolish its inherently racist Indian Act, and ultimately give Aboriginal groups greater self-determination and decision-making powers. This, critics conclude, would threaten the Harper Government’s neoliberal agenda, including its push to develop the extracitvism industries and move dangerous and unsustainable amounts of fossil fuels through pipelines to Canada’s coasts to be shipped overseas.
Women need greater support and less austerity
On the individual level, says Lamouche, who is Métis, the verdict in the Gladue murder trial “has sent a statement to these psychotic men that want to hurt women that Indigenous women are easy targets.
“It’s saying that the justice system isn’t going to protect us. It’s saying that our lives don’t matter, that we’re not safe. It has made Indigenous women everywhere easy targets,” she continued. “So I think there is a greater purpose here, to make some kind of change, some kind of impact, to push our government [and] our justice system to make the changes that they need to make in order to help us Indigenous women to be safe, and our girls too — because there are young girls who have been murdered or gone missing as well.”
Reimer said while the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador recently joined the call for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, it’s important to focus on violence against women at both the national and local levels.
“Showing stiff penalties is only part of the [answer], showing that it doesn’t pay to murder our women,” she said. “We also need to elevate the status of our women to one of equality so that this ultimate expression of disrespect and dehumanization doesn’t keep happening — that we are all worthy of the basic human rights that are so often denied to members of any marginalized group.”
[The verdict is] saying that our lives don’t matter, that we’re not safe. — Fawn Lamouche
After warning in recent weeks that social spending is on the table in the upcoming provincial budget, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis confirmed in the legislature Monday that the province’s eight women’s centres will not see their funding reduced.
Wright says she is “incredibly relieved” at the announcement, which came two days before the women’s centre’s annual government funding would run out, but that her relief is couched in the fact that “the Status of Women Councils in Newfoundland and Labrador receive only $127,000 per year from government” to provide crucial, often life-saving supports, to vulnerable women.
Wright says the Status of Women Councils in Newfoundland and Labrador have not seen an increase in government funding since 2011, despite the fact they have “been doing much more with less funding for years while experiencing dramatic cost increases in food, transportation, housing, salaries.
“Lack of sustainable funding forces us to respond to women and families in our communities with band-aid solutions, patchwork support and never the time nor the resources to tackle the fundamental issues of gender justice and inequality, human rights and advocacy in this province.”
Moreover, Wright says, the provincial PC Government’s impending austerity budget will have a disproportionate negative effect on women.
“Women are often affected by austerity budgets simply because of the economic inequality that women face,” she says. “We’re still making 73 cents on the dollar [compared to men], we’re still often the primary caregiver at home — and so by not shoring up those supports and services, even as a mitigating factor to help folks during tough economic times, we’re forcing them into more poverty and [to face a greater] lack of supports.”
“Working toward a fair justice system”
With growing pressure from Canadians, Lamouche and de Mariaffi believe there’s a real chance Alberta’s courts could see an appeal and a retrial of Gladue’s death. But that will depend on how many letters are sent, how many petitions are signed, and how many people take part in the Justice for Cindy Gladue national day of action Thursday, they say.
“There’s a limited time for these things to be initiated, so that’s why the timing on this and getting support across the country is so important, and to have those letters come in and for them to see that we are really all watching this verdict,” says de Mariaffi.
Lamouche made a plea to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to stand in solidarity with those fighting for justice for Indigenous women in Canada.
“I’d just like to ask anyone else who hasn’t made a commitment to do anything about this matter, to please do, whether it be signing a petition, writing [Alberta’s] justice minister or the Crown prosecutor — write them letters to appeal the verdict. And join us in solidarity on April 2.”
“What we’re working toward is a fair justice system, so this verdict is as important as any other verdict. This one has captured our attention,” says de Mariaffi. “In order for us to get a fair justice system we have to go case by case — and what we’re really pushing for is a national inquiry [into missing and murdered Indigenous women]. There’s a systemic problem here in the justice system.”
Lamouche said the burgeoning number of communities organizing demonstrations “has really restored my faith in humanity a bit, that’s for sure.”
“Unless we all have these [basic human] rights, then nobody really has them,” says Wright. “They can often be seen as the canary in the mine about where we’re at as a society.”