Content warning: The written post below delves heavily into the content of sexual violence, murder and violence against Indigenous women.
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the women depicted in the image above represent 13 Indigenous women that have been missing and murdered since 2010 in my home province of Alberta. These are only 13 recorded by the CBC of over the 1,181 documented by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Keep in mind that there have likely been more than 13 of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Alberta since 2010 to make up part of the larger number of 4,000+ that many Indigenous activists and family members believe are in question. I encourage you to look through the stories of each of these women through the easy to navigate tool that CBC provides. There, you should be able to somewhat get to know these 13 women beyond their faces and names, or at least in the limited ways that CBC portrays them. Reading them all will be the equivalent to less than the time it takes to read the chapter of an average novel. Yet, CBC, despite the best of their ability, still provides a very narrow overview of the full life stories of each of these women.
If you did read over the short descriptions of each of these women, you’ll see that some dark trends arise. Many of these women were found not only dead, but oftentimes they were also brutally beaten to death. Their bodies were treated as subhuman—like disposable objects simply thrown out into the open without any respect afforded to the life that was violently taken away from them. In the cases of the women who’ve gone missing, many of their investigators have paused their investigations or given up on them altogether. Most importantly and often forgotten, all of these women were/are also loved family members who are indeed missed and cared for by many. If we were to consider the number of family members immediately impacted by the over 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women, it is likely that this number, to my safest and honest guess, would reach well over 10,000.
The deaths and disappearances of these women leave behind a horrifying reminder for many Indigenous communities that they still face a stark inequality compared to most non-Indigenous Canadians—especially given the genocidal, colonial ties this national tragedy has been continued upon including the racist and sexist subjugation of Indigenous women. For the length and purpose of this blog entry, I will continue this discussion on the specific trial for Bradley Barton’s evident rape and murder of Cindy Gladue, a 36 year-old Nehiyaw (Cree) mother of three. Additionally, I will connect the Gladue’s case to the writings of anti-violence activist, Andrea Smith, and critical media academic, Yasmin Jiwani, to further describe the colonial and violent implications this case plays into the national crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women historically and contemporarily.
On March 18, 2015 a largely white jury of 9 men and 2 women found Bradley Barton, a truck driver from Ontario, not guilty for the murder of Cindy Gladue (Renzetti, 2015). Despite the evidence of an eleven-centimeter wound to her vagina, which Barton’s lawyer somehow won the jury over by arguing it was an excusable performance on the grounds of consensual, rough sex (Renzetti, 2015). Many have advocated that there could not have been a possibility that this act would have been consensual on the grounds of her alcohol blood level, for one, and the fact that this act, performed by Barton, murdered her (Renzetti, 2015). By considering either general consent or assault laws in Canada, one would hope that any other Canadian woman should be protected under them in a case like this. However, with the jury’s acquittal of Barton, as both Jiwani (2013) and Smith (2015) would argue, Gladue’s rights were violated beyond her death essentially due to her Indigeneity and status as a sex worker.
In her article, Yasmin Jiwani (2013) discusses the concept of ‘bare life,’ which is too often attached to the cases of missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by authorities, media and wider public. Simply put, ‘bare life’ refers to “life that is considered to have no value; but yet its value lies in the sovereign’s power over life and death, and the central tenet to that is the violence of that power” (Jiwani, 2013). When considering violence inflicted against Indigenous women, Andrea Smith (2015) reminds us that it is not only an attack on Gladue’s identity as a woman, but also of that of her Indigenous status. For Smith (2015), “the issues of colonial, race, and gender oppression cannot be separated” in the case of missing and murdered Indigenous women. This is especially true given that European colonizers utilized rape as a tool of genocide against countless Indigenous women and their communities. Therefore, the attack that Bradley Barton had inflicted upon Cindy Gladue was not simply a single, horrific case of rape and murder, but one that has deep historical implications. As it is widely noted that many Indigenous women were the heads of Indigenous groups and passed down wealth, power and inheritance prior to settler-colonial contact, sexual violence and negative sexualized narratives were inflicted against them to diminish their power and uphold patriarchal, colonial order (FNIS, 2009). In addition to being imposed a ‘bare life,’ Smith (2009) contends that colonizers also saw the bodies of Indigenous women marked by sexual perversity—as ‘dirty,’ ‘lewd’ and ‘licentious’—thereby justifying the rape of their ‘throwaway’ and ‘inherently impure’ bodies. For the colonizers, their rape did not count if it is against an Indigenous woman. With the jury’s last decision, it certainly demonstrated the same ideology.
Along with the enforcement of sexist European morals and laws, Jiwani (2013) argues that sexual violence towards Indigenous women was also an integral part of the traditional settler strategies by colonials for the domination of their bodies, and by extension, their lands. Therefore, the jury’s failure to see Barton’s rape and murder of Gladue reinforces the traditional colonial genocide of Indigenous women. To further dehumanize Gladue beyond her death, her vagina was brought before the jury as evidence in the courtroom (Renzetti, 2015). Gladue was reduced to a body part—an unlikely fate for a victim that is neither Indigenous nor a sex worker (Jiwani, 2013). Evidently, this dehumanizing action taken by the courts demonstrates that Gladue’s body did not matter to them, beyond the fact that they have to debate her rape and murder in the first place. Smith (2015) also contests that the disbelief of sex workers as victims of sexual violence, or at least the need for such dehumanizing means of evidence to prove it, reinforces the historical implications of white settler society seeing the bodies of sex workers as unworthy of integrity and are still violable at all times—let alone the vaginal mutilation that Barton entitled himself to prior as an act of sexual and racial conquest.
Ultimately, Cindy Gladue’s body was made to be hyper-visible due to the scrutiny inflicted against it by the jury. Yet, Barton’s rape and murder was made to be completely invisible given the jury’s acquittal. This invisiblization completely erased the context of Cindy Gladue’s colonial subjugation as an Indigenous woman, personhood as someone worth protecting prior to her death, and livelihood following the trial regarding the cause of her death (Jiwani, 2013). Rather, Cindy Gladue was left to remain another ‘Native prostitute’ who ‘irresponsibly’ led her own life to her violent death as determined by the neo-liberal, settler-colonial gaze that the jury imposed on her.
Cindy Gladue and the greater 4,000+ missing and murdered Indigenous women across this country have been denied justice for their disappearances and deaths caused by legitimate rapists, kidnappers and murderers. Thanks to outcry and rallying of many Indigenous women, communities and allies across the country in over 20 cities following the court’s verdict on March 18, 2015, an appeal is currently being reviewed for this trial. Hopefully, only then may Gladue receive an ounce of the justice that she, and the 4,000+ other missing and murdered deserve. Until then, many Indigenous women, communities and allies will continue rallying and demanding justice for missing and murdered women across this nation even beyond the anticipated results of the long-awaited National Inquiry to come.