She Speaks: Justice begins with a word

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Reta Blind, right, sheds tears while embracing Viola Thomas after listening to Bernie Williams testify at the final day of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday April 8, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

I wanted to start this article by talking about Cindy Gladue.

I found, however, as I rolled words around in my head and then tried them out on the page, that there is no way to discuss the cruel details of this case without dehumanizing Cindy Gladue further, or without using sensationalist language in an attempt to force empathy, which of course cannot be forced.

Even the facts seem to exist as the horrors of another world. Surely not my world – well, indeed, not my world. As a white person with a significant social safety net, I have not had to live in Ms. Gladue’s world of human trafficking, rape, violence, racism, death, and the posthumous degradation of the body. But this is not another world. It’s the world overlaid atop mine. It’s the layers deeper into the sexual abuse, misogyny, and poverty that I’ve experienced.

If I exist somewhere in the middle, perhaps representing the average woman’s experience, Ms. Gladue was an outlier, the counterbalance to the women who insist they’ve never experienced sexism or the people of colour who haven’t experienced racism. Ms. Gladue lived at the intersection of being a woman, an Indigenous person, and someone in poverty. This intersection is now the topic of much debate, though it shouldn’t be. First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women have been saying, and urging white folks to hear, that at this intersection lies death, dehumanization, and annihilation.

Genocide.

Cindy Gladue, a Metis woman who worked as a prostitute, died in an Edmonton hotel room bathtub from an 11-centimetre wound to her vaginal wall. The case was founded on the idea that Ms. Gladue consented to rough sex and died as a result. Under a feminist lens, money cannot purchase consent because when a person is in poverty, money is inherently coercive.  And it is only due to the ‘othering’ of Native women that a jury could even consider that a woman would desire being assaulted so violently that it caused her death. Women, and especially Indigenous women, have been so removed from the category of ‘Human’ that a lawyer can argue, and a jury will believe, that she consented to sex that killed her. That she wanted it. It seems some people have forgotten you cannot consent to being murdered. Pay attention to this argument because it’s often being used to get abusive men off the hook for sexual assault and murder under the guise of rough sex and BDSM. Convenient when the woman is no longer around to say what she did or didn’t want …

Ms. Gladue’s vagina was displayed in the courtroom, to the jury and all else, as evidence. Just her vagina. Not photographs, not an expert’s description. A body part had been removed and displayed, her sanctity desecrated, and it STILL did not sway the jury. Ontario trucker Bradley Barton was found not guilty. To the relief of Ms. Gladue’s loved ones, her community, and for justice as a whole, the Supreme Court decided in May there would be a retrial.

Maybe now that we can see this case as evidence of a genocide against Indigenous women, Ms. Gladue will have justice after all.

The commissioners of the report on Canada’s participation in this genocide describe it in the present tense: “a continuous policy, with shifting expressed motives but an ultimately steady intention, to destroy Indigenous peoples physically, biologically, and as social units.”

In my opinion what happened to Ms. Gladue was a deliberate killing of an individual. The courts did not agree. I believe this is because for far too long, the legal system, police officers, politicians, and citizens have regarded the rampant abductions and killings of Indigenous women as isolated cases. Unfortunate, but not part of a larger pattern. However, it truly does not take much to delve into the current and historical context of oppression and abuse of FNMI (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit) people in Canada (residential schools, forced assimilation including loss of language, 60s and millennial scoops, Highway of Tears) and come to the conclusion that this violence is systemic, deliberate (as in, the harm is done because they are Indigenous women specifically), wide-scale, and intergenerational.

What does it do to a community or a group of people to see their loved one treated so inhumanely, to see themselves and their culture systematically destroyed? When the police don’t help you and the courts define you only by the words they choose (prostitute, addict, Native) and white people look away? When your language is stolen and your ancestors traumatized and no one is telling your story and you’re not allowed to speak for yourself? What kind of collective trauma occurs from young Indigenous girls growing up hearing about MMIW – to learn that they are desirable but disposable and no matter how careful they are, someone wants them dead? What would that do to your daughter?

I know what the version for white girls did to me – eating disorders and self-destructive behaviour and acceptance of abuse and low self-worth and no hope for my future. Pile on the racism and poverty, and how is that not an attempt to destroy a people?

We do not get to shy away from this word because it reminds of a war, after which we’d collectively claimed Never Again. We do not get to clutch our pearls and cry, “Not us! We would never…” We do not get to quibble over the word that reminds us we are not always the polite and inclusive nation we play on TV. We should hate this word. We should be horrified. We should be looking deeply into our individual and social culpability and we should be facing a reckoning of conscience. We should be willing, eager, desperate to make amends, to facilitate reconciliation, to be on the side of those most harmed. To act as shields between vulnerable populations and those who would enact violence against them.

I have never cared less about the reputation of this country. I care about my sisters, who are confronting epidemics of violence, racism, lack of resources like access to clean water and housing (human rights), and now the hand-waving of those offended by a word, shifting the focus from the reality of these women, to the feelings of men in positions of privilege and power. It’s a diversion, and it’s divisive; two things we need to avoid when the most necessary thing is staring truth right in the face.

Ms. Gladue’s story has stayed with me as proof of our social disregard and literal destruction of FNMI women – it’s, always in the background of my thoughts when I write or read about the oppression of Indigenous women. How could she have been confronted with so much of the darkness of Canada, from male violence to the court system? Genocides, and our understanding of them, often have a pinnacle, a turning point in our awareness of the issue. Frequently, we need that person to humanize the group in its entirety, because otherwise it’s too many names, too many faces, simply overwhelming. I wonder sometimes if our brains can even contain the horrors of what our own government, religion, or society are capable of. And if we cannot accept it, we must deny it, or live in permanent cognitive dissonance. I have now witnessed each of these options, and I know where I stand.

I have heard the family members of the missing and murdered indigenous women – I have read definitions and historical precedents. I have learned the human cost. And I am ready to do what needs to be done, as defined by women Indigenous leaders, to make this right in this country of which I am ashamed and yet for which I still have hope.

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Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.

10 Comments

    • Kathleen May, you speak eloquently and insightfully on a topic that shocks and horrifies. May a light continue to shine on these dark truths and bring healing. Thank you.

  1. A superb, and a courageously reflective article by Kathleen May. This article helps to provide additional context as to why there is, so justly, such an intense, emotional, and yet an evidenced-based debate around the use of the term, ‘genocide,’ and its application to specific historical situations.

    As Canadians, we have only recently discovered, and continue to uncover and grapple with an insidious reality that is the consequence, of yes, colonialism, with its misguided, and in most cases, its consciously abusive use of an historic imbalance of power. Intentional listening, free of judgement, is so essential if we as a nation are to move forward in this long journey of reconciliation and healing with our Indigenous brethren.

    An informative and a carefully researched, documented read is the award-winning 2013 work by a Canadian prairie historian (with research specialization in the social determinants of health), James Daschuk. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life is an analysis and an indictment of colonialism and its legacy from the time of European contact up to, and including the crucial Macdonald era from 1867 to 1891, a time of nation-building and the fabled ‘National Dream.’ Nearly half the 303-page work are devoted to documented end-notes.
    A short book trailer to Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-nY-ftjtxE

  2. Yes! Thank you for this Kathleen! Hearing the dismissiveness of the word “genocide” in regards to this current horrific terror that is taking place astounded me. I’m so grateful to you for writing about things that are devastating but need a voice. It’s not easy. But it’s a necessity that we all be aware of what is happening right now.

  3. Canada has consistently treated MMIW, and indeed, all aboriginals far worse than the majority of the US (excepting the southern states) ever treated their African American population. And yet, our reputation for being “nice” has somehow blinded most of the world to “our dirty little secret”. And we blunder ahead; ramming through a pipeline, which is vehemently opposed by aboriginals.
    .
    It constantly sickens me to think of this pristine, sustainable land that we “appropriated” (read “stole”) from them. And what is left? A ravaged, unsustainable land; with any hope for environmental redemption becoming more minute daily.
    .
    I propose a Cindy Gladue federal scholarship program; fully funded by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. It needn’t be entirely open to females (just a strong plurality). Give people some hope, self-esteem, and a way out: It could be mostly for post-secondary education; but also for tutors to provide secondary education for students on reservation. Our two aboriginal federal members, who displayed such strong devotion to their principles, should be two of the judges of the awards.

  4. John Rivière-Anderson on

    Thank you, Kathleen, for your incisive and unequivocal encapsulation of the abuse, suffering and death of First Nation, Metis and Inuit women. Herstories of their often horrific lives have been isolated from me and other privileged white males, by their voicelessness in the (neo)colonial paradigm, in time and in place. At last, heart-wrenching testimonies and the commissioner’s report have called their collective systematic destruction by name : Canada has finally been inculpated for genocide.

    And it continues. Minamata disease by mercury poisoning of the English and Winnipeg River system in Northwestern Ontario was maiming the members of Whitedog and Grassy Narrows families of folks I worked with 45 years ago. Yet another federal study has been launched. No government regulator responsibility nor corporate legal liability will ever be claimed or determined : some live more downstream than others, and for them environmental justice doesn’t exist; the original offender no longer owns the company.

    Apologies are easy rhetoric. As Kathleen has exhorted us to do, Canadians need to feel FIrst Nations, Mets and Inuit genocide as a personal and national gangrene. It must persistently hurt us so badly that we abandon complacency and denial, that we confront our combined histories as they are, then disinfect, repair and heal.

  5. Karen Wehrstein on

    You’re absolutely right, Kathleen: people don’t get it until you make it personal, so I’m glad you did here, horrific though it is.
    .
    Otherwise-kind and humane Canadians will come up with all sorts of reasons why Cindy Gladue didn’t matter. “She was just a prostitute, asking for it. She was just a native, messed up anyway. She was just a woman; *he* was a *man*!”
    .
    Cindy was, like every human female, someone’s daughter. Can you imagine how it would feel if Cindy were your daughter, and her lifeless flesh was displayed in court, and the man who weaponized his own still-living flesh to kill her nonetheless got off scot free? (Consent!! I somehow doubt he asked, “Hey Cindy, mind if I’m so rough I wound you fatally?” And try to tell me she didn’t scream “STOP!!” and he didn’t ignore it.) How about if Cindy were your sister, your lover, your friend, your neighbour? She was all these, in actuality or potentially. Cindy was potentially someone’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.
    .
    Cindy had pleasure, laughter, sadness, shame, pride, pain — all these human things. Cindy’s life ended with pain beyond imagining.
    .
    I use her first name, and frequently, for a reason — because that’s the name we use with people we know, and we cannot dehumanize, we cannot make “other”, people we know. “A native woman,” “a prostitute,” “a murder victim,” all de-personalize and therefore, in their way, dehumanize. She was Cindy who was a woman. She was Cindy who was First Nations. She was Cindy who was in the sex trade. She was Cindy who was dehumanized in the most final way: murdered. I don’t know her death-pain directly as I have, blessedly, never had that experience. But I know other aspects of her pain. I know her individual sense of helplessness very, very well.
    .
    She was not “other.” She was Cindy the human being whose life, death, pain and human rights mattered, and still do matter. I’m glad that’s been recognized enough for a retrial to happen.
    .
    If you’re “othering” her — quit. “Othering” is permission for genocide.

  6. Trisha Pendrith on

    I can hardly see to type this for the tears pouring down my face from the emotion triggered. Yes! From the deepest place in my heart, I applaud and echo the thoughtful comments that follow Kathleen’s eloquently expressed truths and realities about Canada and indeed, our world today.
    The time has come in Canada to embrace these truths, to step over the lines of apathy and denial and take action – in our own lives, collectively and legislatively, to right the brutal wrongs inflicted on indigenous peoples, especially women and girls, especially remembering the many thousands and perhaps millions, who, like Cindy Gladue, have suffered beyond comprehension.
    Please, in future, let us remember the previous Harper/Conservative government’s despicable stance that an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was “not on our radar.”
    And from the bottom of my heart, thank-you Kathleen for your courage, wisdom, and remarkable skill at story telling, at clearly expressing ideas and your superb writing.

  7. Kathleen May you have beautifully articulated what is in my heart. Since reading Hugh Mackenzie’s Opinion about the use of the word Genocide, I have felt a blind rage towards those who would distract from this situation on any level by arguing over the definition of a word. The commission members did not just toss that word in without fully understanding the definition, risk and applicability.
    You have found a way to touch us with a firm and yet gently hand to see the bigger picture. There can be no reconciliation without first accepting the truth. Genocide by both definition and in spirit is our truth as a nation.

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