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Reclaiming our justice system and media: Lessons from Cindy Gladue

We are not entitled to know the explicit details of Cindy Gladue's passing. What we ought to know is how a court system, a system that many place their trust in to find justice could possibly continue to further dehumanize the sacred life of an Indigenous woman.

Cindy's remains were examined in a court room by a non-native jury who were able to deliberate, question, and analyze whether Cindy Gladue's murder was intentional or accidental in what became a colonial spectacle.

Many across Canada would not know about the case of Cindy Gladue if it wasn't for the work of Indigenous media outlets. It was through online activism by Indigenous women and men across the country that mainstream media started paying attention to the murder of a Cree woman and mother. Once mainstream media coverage took notice, including women's media, it was not surprising to see a very different angle covered. There was little talk on how to cover missing and murdered Indigenous women in a respectful tone.

Many strangers know the wounds that caused Cindy Gladue's death, and they do not own these wounds. Not anyone. Not media, not the court, not the public. Cindy Gladue's body belongs to herself and the court failed to respect her dignity, privacy, and respect. The violence that Cindy Gladue experienced in the court room was then passed on through media, as a wider audience was now free to further objectify the circumstances of her death.

Historically, in media reports of missing and murdered Indigenous women, when an Indigenous woman is assumed or known to be involved with the sex trade they're often presented in media with explicit and graphic details of their death. The presentation is very different than what's delivered about any other group of women who do not have sex trade experience.

Violence towards sex trade women has become so normalized that anyone can comment on the private details of how women's bodies in the sex trade are treated, without having to examine how we place higher value on the bodies of women who have no sex trade background. Any sex trade affiliation could render her as liable to be discriminated against, just because of that one component of her identity. The stigma she experienced was based on her being indigenous, and involved in the sex trade. These identities come with complexity, and deserve respect rather than being treated as "evidence" in the court of law. 

Cindy Gladue was a mother, and someone's daughter. People often do not envision women involved in the sex trade as having other roles or identities. Society disconnects from the identities of women who have experience in the sex trade. This happens in reality, but also in the media. It is fairly easy for people to disconnect from what they do not understand. It is no wonder that this creates space for people to insert themselves in these dialogues without acknowledging all of Cindy Gladue's connections and relations.

Many people do not have to think how their opinions and treatment will affect the communities and the family she belongs to, what they instead choose to see is the sensationalism of violence. Other roles she held as a woman could easily be ignored or purposely not mentioned. This is how stigma erases the varied experiences of a human and denies rights, protection, and justice. Individuals become defined by certain attributes that society deems unacceptable.

The explanation for her identity as a sex worker to be considered evidence stems from colonial views and racist assumptions about her "high-risk" activities, detracting from her killer's accountability for his actions. Under the colonial lens of our justice system and the state, Indigenous women and girls are still treated as disposable, replaceable, and unnoticeable to the rest of Canadian society. 

Families and communities know that once the media becomes involved with the murder of a loved one, there is an intense feeling of grief and awareness that cannot seem to coexist with one another. There is the innate need for privacy, to share these stories, and to stop these tragedies from happening again. The media are there one day, gone the next. The feeling everyday that no one will rest until Indigenous women and girls do not have to continue on with uncertainty if the state, government, or laws will protect them for future generations to come.

It is not surprising that many share concerns over these matters. It is not surprising that we do not all have the same agreements on how to achieve that. Indigenous people all have relations and connections even if some of those will never be found.

We need to tell our Indigenous women and girls that we will never stop fighting for a better world for them, and never stop demanding justice for our past sisters.

Taylor S.J. is the women's outreach coordinator at her university for two years now, and is of mixed European and Cree ancestry. She is a former elder caregiver, and is currently a writer, speaker, and organizer on anti-violence initiatives for women and justice for street youth. Recently, she organized a panel that honored marginalized women for International Women's day, titled "Breaking Stigma: Women Refusing Marginalization." The panel featured speakers and families affected by missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, with all proceeds going to PACE.

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