She was both indigenous and a sex worker, so the odds were stacked against Cindy Gladue before the 36-year-old mother of three entered the Edmonton hotel room of truck driver Bradley Barton in June 2011.
The next day Gladue, Cree, would be found dead in the room’s bathtub, having bled out from a four-inch-long laceration to her vagina. There was proof of this because her entire pelvic area, including that very body part, was preserved and presented as evidence in Barton’s trial.
However, even that did not sway the jury. On March 18 Barton was acquitted of first-degree murder as well as manslaughter because Gladue had presumably consented to the treatment that had gotten her either stabbed or—as he contended in testimony—accidentally torn by his hand during rough sex. Those outraged at the verdict question how Gladue could be seen as consenting when her blood-alcohol level was four times above the legal limit.
“Such an argument is only possible in a context that normalizes violence against sex workers, and excuses and facilitates ongoing violence against indigenous women,” wrote Julie Kaye, an assistant professor of sociology and director of Community Engaged Research at the King’s University in Edmonton, in theEdmonton Journal.
Barton maintained that he had fallen asleep, unaware that Gladue was injured, and found her the next morning. He dialed emergency services and waited for responders.
Gladue’s death and posthumous treatment in the court system has become a flashpoint for those who insist that a national inquiry into violence against aboriginal women is the only way to get to the root of the problem. Demonstrations were held across Canada on Thursday April 2 to protest the verdict, the day after the Crown prosecution filed an appeal.
“The jury has sent a message that killing an indigenous woman is acceptable,” wrote indigenous activists Sarah Hunt and Naomi Sayers in The Globe and Mail. “How many more deaths will it take before the system is compelled to change?”
Gladue’s body parts were not passed around to the jury to examine—rather, they were behind an opaque screen, observed on an overhead projector as pathologists explained what was being shown—but this did not take away from the dehumanization of the victim, advocates said. It was the first time in Canadian history that a body part has ever been introduced as evidence in a trial.
“If she were white, would anyone have dared trot her vagina out for display?” wrote Rosie DiManno in the Star. “If she were a homemaker? A white-collar businesswoman? Not merely just one of among some 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in this country? Not a prostitute, thus commodified for her sexual organs?”
The appeal was filed on ground that there were errors in the instructions given to the jury, the Edmonton Journal reported. The jury, which consisted of nine men and two women—though no indigenous people—was given the option of first-degree murder, manslaughter or acquittal.
“The logic usually goes that if someone admits to injuring another person to the point that those injuries contribute to their death, the law will respond by convicting that person of a crime—the crime of murder, or manslaughter, if intent to kill cannot be proven. Not so, it seems, for indigenous women like Cindy Gladue,” wrote scholar and advocate Hunt, a member of the Kwagiulth band of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, and Sayers, Anishnaabe Kwe and sex-worker advocate, in their column. “If the defence concedes that Mr. Barton committed the acts that contributed to Cindy’s death, the fact that money changed hands does not magically nullify the act. An acquittal should not have been an option.”
“The death of Cindy Gladue was shocking and appalling,” said the chief Crown prosecutor, Michelle Doyle, in a statement quoted by the Edmonton Journal. “It also resulted in significant harm to her family and the community, and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service continues to take that very seriously.”
Events and attitudes like these are the very forces that have indigenous women fearing for their safety, if not their lives, as they go about their day, many of them said after the verdict. Indigenous leaders also spoke out, and many attended the demonstrations held in at least 14 cities on April 2.
“I am outraged by the original decision,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde, in a statement before attending a rally in Saskatoon. “First Nations people from across Canada are outraged by the original decision. And while the appeal announced today is a necessary step, this stands as one too many examples of systemic discrimination towards First Nations people.”
“We should all be outraged by this verdict,” said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy in a separate statement. “She was a mother, a sister and a daughter whose life was taken too early and now a verdict from a jury that essentially says First Nations women lives aren’t as valued as everyone else’s. Our leaders take this very seriously.”
Support poured in from the west coast as well.
“The jury’s acquittal of Ms. Gladue’s killer constitutes the utter failure of the criminal justice system to adjudicate correctly and provide justice,” said Marlene George, co-chair of the February 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee (WMMC), in a statement endorsed by 16 advocacy organizations in Salish territory. “Further, the acquittal effectively condones violence against indigenous women, particularly if they are poor.”