The news came halfway through the protest rally that prosecutors in Alberta would file an appeal in the Cindy Gladue murder case, and the crowd shouted with relief. No one can know yet what the outcome of that appeal will be, but it seemed, for a minute, that another bit of humanity had been restored to her. Too late for her, of course, but a comfort perhaps for her family, and for the people who had gathered in her name.
The goal of the afternoon protest in Toronto – and others like it in 20 cities around the country – was to make Ms. Gladue whole in memory, so that she was an individual, not just another sex worker, a person so dehumanized that her preserved vagina was presented as evidence in an Edmonton courtroom. The goal was to make sure there aren't any more Cindy Gladues.
Right now, what the country knows about her is a collection of details that provide the outline of a death, but not a life. We know that she was 36 and a mother of three when she was found bleeding to death in an Edmonton hotel bathtub in June, 2011. We know that there was an 11-centimetre wound to her vagina, which was either caused by a sharp instrument, as the Crown argued, or by blunt trauma resulting from "rough" but consensual intercourse with the man accused and acquitted of her murder, Bradley Barton. That's a meaningless number, 11 centimetres, until you go look it up. I did, on a tape measure. It's not meaningless any more.
Those are the bare numbers of a life that has been reduced, in the public mind, to unresolved degradation and violence. Too many aboriginal women in this country have suffered similar fates. There was a person behind those numbers, behind that horrifying death and posthumous humiliation, and Cindy's mother Donna wanted people to know. She released a statement about her daughter, which was read at the rally by Audrey Huntley of the No More Silence coalition.
Cindy was born in Athabasca, Alta., on July 23, the oldest of four siblings. She was jealous of her little brother when he arrived, because she didn't want to share her mother's attention. She grew up loving cooking shows and her grandmother, and couldn't understand her mother's fondness for bingo. In Donna's words – and you can hear the echo of mothers everywhere – "she was a kind-hearted person who would help you any way she could."
According to her mother, "she started to hang around with the wrong crowd." Donna stepped in to help raise Cindy's three daughters, "because that's what moms are for, to help your children." Those children are without a mother now, and Donna is without a daughter: "Losing my daughter Cindy was the hardest thing I've ever had to go through."
Those details add up, and begin to offer a picture of a woman who had been reduced to body parts – in fact, reduced to one body part. The symbolism is too cruel, but perhaps not surprising for a system that dehumanizes sex workers and victims of sexual violence in general. Imagine if the victim in this trial had been an accountant, or a dentist. Would her vagina have been presented as evidence? And if you're thinking, "Accountants and dentists wouldn't have been in this position," think again. Women of all ages, professions and backgrounds are victims of sexual violence. What Ms. Gladue did for a living makes no difference when considering what happened to her.
At the rally, Christa Big Canoe, a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, put in words what many of us were thinking and couldn't quite articulate: "If you set aside the shock of the verdict in Cindy Gladue's murder trial, you're still left with the horrific fact that a court in Canada allowed the most intimate part of a woman's body to be exhibited in a jury trial. … Cindy was a human being. She was a human being regardless of her profession. Her remains belong to a human being, and they had no place [as] evidence in a Canadian justice system."
Ms. Big Canoe noted that the tissue used in evidence at the trial still hasn't been reunited with Ms. Gladue's body. She hasn't been served justice, and she still isn't whole. Maybe you have to be a woman to understand how debasing this is. Really, you should only have to be human.