Life-giver. Her body is always our first home.
Women are the beloved country. They are the land. The most effective way to destroy a culture is to murder the women. Canada is not alone in this. Countries the world over, throughout history, have turned this violent policy into unquestioned pathology.
I learned about the depth of that pathology when I lived in Vancouver. Indigenous activists and families had been demanding for over a decade that the police acknowledge the obvious and find the serial killer or killers responsible for the ever-growing number of missing Indigenous women in the area. Finally, in 2002, the police arrested Robert Pickton and began to excavate his farm. The magnitude of murders was unbelievable—the remains or DNA of 33 women were discovered at his farm. He claims to have killed 49. Most of Pickton’s victims were Indigenous, or other women of colour, or women so damaged by life that they, too, by our society’s twisted logic, qualified for more damage: torture and murder.
Relatives in the sex trade had taught me to expect very little from law enforcement, but still, I thought, the extent of these crimes had to make people—even fucking white people!—angry. Yet I was contained then, as I am contained now, within the forgetful privilege of my own white skin. Most Vancouverites, before and after the excavations in 2002, were quiet, acquiescent. The people who cried out were the same ones—mostly Indigenous mothers, daughters, sisters, passionate, articulate, fierce activists—who had been crying out, writing, working, and organizing, for years. They had lost so much already, the women they loved. With the excavations, with the lurid sensationalism of media, with the trial, they lost more, and more, and more.
My eight-year-old son helped Donna and I make the posters. I’d been telling him about what happened, carefully, trying not to give him too much information. “But how?” He kept asking. “How did she get killed?” He is a child who looks closely; he wants to understand. So I took a deep breath. “That man hurt her inside her body. He gave her a big cut. In her private parts. In her vagina. She lost so much blood that she died.”
His face twisted in horror. “But why did he do that to her? How could he do that?”
“Because he didn’t care about who she was. He didn’t care about her life, her body. Different kinds of violence happen to a lot of women in Canada. Especially Indigenous women. First Nations.” That’s the term he’s been using in school.
“And she was a First Nations lady.”
“She was. You saw her picture, right?”
“And I wrote her name.” He was proud to be able to read it, to be a part, for once, of what I do: write things down. I’d been absent from him a lot, busy at the computer. “Cindy Gladue,” he pronounced gravely. “She had kids and everything.”
“Yeah. She did. Three girls.”
“And they lost their mom. They don’t have their mom anymore!” The injustice of it took a different, closer form for him.
“That’s why, in this poster, we write family words, all the ways she was connected to her family. Her whole family and all her friends miss her.”
“Like we miss Tita Linda.” A dear family friend had died of cancer earlier in the year.
“Exactly like we miss Tita Linda.” The web shivered, touched in a hundred places: Maria singing Linda a grandmother’s lullaby in Cree. My youngest sister teaching me how smudge at a First Nations addiction centre in Calgary. Lighting sage and saying a simple prayer before we began to paint the posters.
My son read the words out loud, proudly:
Human being just like you
He studied settlers in school. “A lot of First Nations people still call us that.”
“Do they? Well, it’s true. We are settlers. This land was their land, once.”
“But white people took it from them. That’s what happened with the railway.”
“Even before the railway. But the railway made it worse because it went across the country.”
“It was a war.”
“A lot of people don’t call it that, but that’s what it was. When a lady like Cindy dies, that’s part of the same war.”
Settlers, my son and me—many of us see that. But we have trouble holding onto the vision. We know, but we cannot know. When the protest is done, we can return to the privilege of forgetting. Every day Indigenous people in Canada must remember. Remembrance can be scalding, ruinous. Yet it is also life. And joy. To re-member. To return to wholeness. To bring the truth of the past into the present, so that the future, too, will be remembered, will grow anew.
They had lost so much already, the women they loved. With the excavations, with the lurid sensationalism of media, with the trial, they lost more, and more, and more.
Every Canadian—settlers all—has to follow the Indigenous example and learn to remember. History lives inside us, as story and culture, as legal policy, as unconscious expectation, as cyclical and even genetic trauma. The colonial project of Canada was designed to kill or assimilate all Indigenous peoples. Assimilation was and is tantamount to cultural, linguistic, spiritual death. The colonial project remains significantly intact because it has never been fully rewritten or reimagined. But over the last 30 years, that has been changing. It is the most important cultural and political development in Canada: the steady rise of Indigenous peoples. They are ending the colonial period by decolonizing themselves.
Despite European epidemics, organized starvation, alcohol and almost 500 years of violence. Despite the residential school system. Despite the ongoing abuse of the provincial “child protection” agencies. Despite the prison system. Despite millions of murdered and missing mothers and girls, fathers and boys: family, clan, and nation structures, broken again and again. Despite genocide and psychecide.
Indigenous people are involved in an awe-inspiring movement of revitalization, reclaiming cultures, languages, traditional ways of relating. They are reclaiming their territories, fighting for their ancestral lands and for the health of the land and water that every one of us depends upon. It is heroic; it should be front-page news every day. Why don’t we celebrate these achievements openly? Why didn’t we see laudatory national news coverage of Theland Kicknosway’s long-distance solitary walk and run from Ontario to Quebec? At 11 years old, Theland is already a leader among his people. He was running to bring hope and attention to the children of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
When Europeans first arrived on North American soil, the only way they could survive was by learning from the First Peoples, the ones who have lived with this land since time immemorial. Now, all settlers on the planet must learn from their Indigenous brothers and sisters how to decolonize, how to live in relation to each other and to the earth. Or our species will not survive.
Remember the buffalo. Remember the piles of bones high as houses. Was it the past, or the future?
Donna and I wouldn’t be finished painting the posters until late that night. I topped up her glass of wine and took the boy to bed. He was still breaking it down into facts he could understand. “Cindy Gladue died because that man was a racist, and he was bad. Right?”
I turned my head away, tears pricking my eyes. Did he already know too much about bad men? Earlier that month, we walked past his school and discussed sex all the way to the library. “After you go on a date and do the kissing and touching, and you decide about doing the sex, where do you do it? You have to find a safe place, right? But where?”
Following each answer was a new question. “So even if I’m at home, no one else gets to see us, do they? I close the door, right? Are there curtains on the windows?” By the age of eight, I thought, amazed, a healthy child understands the need for sexual safety. He got practical again. “Who takes off their clothes first?” And mystified, “Do you have to do sex?”
The questions poured out of him like pure sweet water, except that he asked, twice, “But sometimes it’s not fun, it’s not wonderful at all, because sometimes the man is mean, if he is bad? If he is a bad man.”
Now he asked again, as he was getting ready to brush his teeth. Was it right, to be talking about it just before bed? Again, I answered his question. “Yes, that man was very bad. And people all across Canada are upset about it. We’re angry.”
“Because he didn’t go to jail. He didn’t get into trouble.”
“He didn’t. And that was wrong. The courts and the lawyers and the jury, they also weren’t thinking about Cindy’s life. They didn’t do the right thing.”
“But why didn’t they do the right thing?”
“Because mostly it’s white people who control the courts and they often don’t do the right thing when it comes to First Nations people. That’s more racism. It’s not just one or two or even a hundred people making those decisions, it’s … institutions.” It was a word he didn’t have yet. “Institutions are the courts, schools, the police. They’re like big old machines run by people, but they have an even bigger power of their own.”
“And that’s why you’re going to the protest, right?”
“Right. We’re going to say no! What happened to Cindy was wrong, it was a crime.”
“Right on the street. In front of a government building.”
“With our signs?” He was impressed.
“Yup. And some chanting, and maybe some yelling.”
“Will anyone listen to you?”
“We’ll listen to each other. Some elders will be there, I think. We’ll listen to some people speak. And the government people will definitely know we’re there, even if they don’t listen. There’ll be lots of people. Some drummers will drum. But you know, we’re also doing this to remember her. To honour Cindy and other women who’ve died. Like we do for Tita Linda when we light candles and sage.”
Suddenly, head up, as though remembering something important, he said, “I’m white!” Was it meant to protect him or to place him, already guilty, into the camp of bad men?
I kissed him. “Actually, you’re not white, my love. Your dad is Asian, remember?”
“Oh. Yeah.” His dad was in the next room, watching TV. “I forgot.”
When the non-verdict was announced on March 18, 2015, few people seemed to be interested that another white man had been involved in the violent death of another Indigenous woman; that he walked away, returned to his life, while Cindy’s remained another treasure stolen from another family. After a friend sent me news of the baffling, outrageous acquittal, I looked up major news outlets, the CBC, Global, CTV. None of the online sites had any news or analysis; not a single one had an editorial.
On my Facebook page, I posted,
If Cindy Gladue were white, the shocking acquittal of her murderer would be trending. Her name would be on everyone’s lips. We would all be saying, “How tragic.” No, if she were white, her MURDERER WOULD BE IN JAIL. But because she was a beautiful Cree woman, and a sex worker who held his hand as they approached Bradley Barton’s hotel room—he cut her and let her bleed to death ACCIDENTALLY. It was all an unfortunate accident. He’s home, presumably, in Mississauga, with his loving wife and kids. There should be a public howl for a retrial. It is legally possible. The Crown must appeal.
Few “Friends” responded. I began the Facebook equivalent of yelling: I kept posting. Then I started sending emails to journalist colleagues. I posted the addresses and numbers of the Crown Prosecutor’s office and the Alberta Solicitor General, encouraging people to write expressing their moral outrage at the acquittal and pressing for an appeal.
“A lot of people don’t call it war, but that’s what it was. When a lady like Cindy dies, that’s part of the same war.”
I searched for an image of Barton. Where was his face? I thought sex-workers all across Canada should have access to an image of him, if only to protect themselves. I asked several journalists who worked on the case in Edmonton to search their databases for a rap-sheet photograph, even a court drawing. Nothing was available. Everyone knew intimate, tragic details about a young woman named Cindy Gladue; anyone could see an image of her. The sexual heart of her body—her wounded vagina—was preserved and brought into the courtroom as evidence, which made me think back to Vancouver in 2002: more damage, more damage, more damage. The Crown could abuse her body again in the courtroom, yet Barton’s face remained protected.
Only Twitter, where I rarely spend time, was filled with people articulating their rage, defiance and disgust. Here were sane, brilliant responses to the acquittal in 140 characters or less. At first, they came only from Indigenous individuals, organizations, and those closely associated with them, such as @Windspeaker, @Ahni, @WWOS1, @EmilyRiddle. @KweToday, @CBC_Aboriginal, @Nehiyahskwew, @gregoryschofield, @Pam_Palmater, @IdleNoMore4, @TantooC, @wewap, @acimowin, @RedIndianGirl, @ltldrum, @Shingwauk, @JWegijiig, @FSIS, @APTN, @VioletEricaLee, @NoMOresilence, @Christibelcourt, @NYSHN, @Niigaanwewidam, @Shingwauk, among many others.
The news and people’s reactions to it grew under the hashtags #CindyGladue #JusticeforCindyGladue #MMIW #FSIS #MMIW2SG. Then a powerful thing happened. Within a day, two days, more and more people of every race, any race, Indigenous, settled, unsettled, were tweeting, posting on Facebook and their blogs, discussing the case, questioning the makeup of the jury (nine men, two women, no Indigenous people), reminding us that Cindy Gladue was not, is not the only victim.
On March 25, Indigenous activists Dr. Sarah Hunt and Naomi Sayers published a powerful editorial in The Globe and Mail. The Winnipeg Free Press published another one, then the National Post, the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen followed suit. TV networks posted more online articles. Radio coverage began.
Discussions about the trial incited fresh outrage. It emerged that while Cindy Gladue lay dead in the bathtub, Bradley Barton left the hotel room with a bag, returned hours later without the bag, then called 911. He lied to the operator, who sent the police. Then he lied to the police. He tried to clean up the blood, unsuccessfully. How could a jury believe the judge’s claim that Cindy Gladue could consent to the violence that killed her? Then came the news that key evidence had been withheld from the jury: Bradley Barton’s computer was full of sexual torture videos, in particular, ones involving violent penetration.
Someone in Vernon, B.C., called a spontaneous protest outside her local courthouse on March 24th. The spark of that public action flew up into the air; the wind took it to Edmonton, where a Métis woman, Fawn Lamouche, called publicly for a larger, organized protest to take place on April 2nd.
During the next week, Indigenous activists and their supporters across the country joined the Edmonton protest. Whether organizers called it a rally, a protest, or a vigil, the intention to hold these gatherings moved across Canada like a brush-fire, with more cities and towns joining each day. Victoria, Calgary, St. Paul, Lac LaBiche, Lethbridge.
Indigenous women would lead public protests widely supported by white and racialized settlers. Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Sarnia, St. John’s. These networks had been built, over years, by First Nations activists and their allies. The Sisters in Spirit Vigil takes place on October 4th; the Women’s Memorial March, started in Vancouver, on February 14th. Peterborough, Kenora, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Whitehorse, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Montreal. Coast-to-coast, north-to-south. On just one day, for a few hours. But the speed at which so many voices came together in anger and in grief was historic.
From textbooks and TV, we are used to the idea that history is grand. That it happens in black and white, involves men in uniform, wars lost and won, territories taken over, countries renamed. Indeed: no one knows war and renaming better than Indigenous people everywhere on this earth.
Yet there is another history, too, less visible but no less important, alive at the edges and at the centre, in the heart, enacted repeatedly yet often unrecorded, often cut down, silenced. Only to rise and speak and sing again. Dance. It is persistent, this history; it has never stopped transforming peoples’ lives and the larger world.
I don’t know the name for it. Solidarity? Protest? Faith? Or is it a complex, fierce, ever-reaching love? It is not only human. Animals are part of it, too, and trees, plants, wild spaces, the waters. Even the public and private spaces of cities. These all speak particular languages, different dialects, often without words. We need only to listen; to hear. Again and again, this history comes up through us, like green spears through soil, reaching for light and air. Growth. Perhaps it comes from the earth herself.
I had the roll of posters under my arm, but was worried. Why weren’t there more people? But we were early. The trickle turned into a steady swell, then a crowd. My friend and I only needed one sign each; we handed out the rest, awkwardly, smiling, strangers to most of the people there. The many young people made me glad; I knew they would be there. I thought of Theland Kicknosway; he was still out there, walking to his grandmother Bridget Tolley’s house. I thought of my son, writing it down, saying her name out loud. Cindy Gladue. I caught sight of the only boy in the crowd—he was a little older than my son. His mom, Cathy Tsong Deh Kwe, would be drumming and singing.
Suddenly all the Facebooking and tweeting, tens of thousands of words flying and burning through the air, across these lands, all that language became flesh, transformed into real people, their shoes on the ground. Many of us had never met each other except in cyberspace. Then I saw some neighbours, too, and a lot of fellow writers, artists. Curiously, my dentist was there; she’d heard about the protest from a patient. We chatted, shuffled our feet as we held up our posters.
No one knows war and renaming better than Indigenous people everywhere on this earth.
Audrey Huntley and Chanelle Gallant, the two women hosting the rally, marched in with a heavy speaker for the microphone. We formed a circle around them. They set up a microphone, readied the sage to smudge.
Elder Dorothy Peters began by praying in Anishnaabemowin. She translated her prayer into English. “We remember all the women who were taken from us too early. We ask the Creator to come here and listen and help us to speak for them … We want the Creator to come and take care of the families of those who have gone missing. We thank the Creator for everything we have. We ask that everything we do, we do to take care of one another. Chii-migwitch.”
Audrey Huntley, of No More Silence, read a statement from Cindy Gladue’s mother, Donna McLeod. “On behalf of Cindy’s family, thank you for your support in seeking justice for Cindy Gladue. It means a lot to us to see how many people across Canada have shown they care. We are grateful that you are asking for justice.” Donna, through Audrey, talked about Cindy as a little girl, as a high school student making so many friends, as an adult. “She loved her cooking shows. She loved cooking and she was a good cook, too … I tried to get her to come to bingo with me but she didn’t like it. ‘How can you sit there for two or three hours?’” Everyone laughed. “Cindy was a kind-hearted person who would help you in any way … She loved her girls so much … No matter what, her kids always came first … Cindy had her ups and downs, but nothing seemed to bother her. She always said, ‘Life goes on. What can you do anyways?’ Losing my daughter Cindy was the hardest thing I had to go through. Telling her brothers and sister was hard. Cindy’s girls made it harder because that was their mom. Going to trial was very hard for me and when they found him not guilty, it was a shock. I wish I had more to say but this is hard.” Audrey was crying; many of us were crying because the truth was out now, alive in the air, moving in the crowd as breath, as wind in our ears, these words, one mother’s grief and loss illuminating the losses of so many people.
The drummers began. They started out quiet but their voices lifted, strengthened with the drum-beat. The song raised us up. It was such a relief to hear the “Strong Women’s Song” on a busy street in downtown Toronto. A drum-beat always calls the blood; it is the sound of the heart. Some wept; some sang along. We stood there together, the awkwardness gone now that the women were singing in a language older than the asphalt and concrete around us, older than the Ministry of the Attorney General.
When the women finished, Audrey Huntley took the microphone again, “There has been an announcement by the Alberta government that they will be appealing the decision.” The crowd erupted into cheers. To shout like that was another relief. An appeal was the very least that the legal system could offer but we were grateful to have that.
The next speaker, renowned First Nations lawyer Christa Big Canoe, reminded the crowd that relying on the criminal justice system has never worked for Indigenous people. “The news that the Crown will appeal makes me glad on one level,” she said, “but it also brings cause for concern. Because as long as we keep relying on the criminal justice system to take care of murdered and missing women, we still have so many problems.” She talked about the dangers of Bill C-36, which criminalizes sex workers, making it illegal for them to protect themselves. She spoke about how the Crown inflicted more damage to not only Cindy but her whole family by using her most intimate body part as trial evidence. The moment such evidence was introduced, she said, the courtroom could be nothing but a hostile space for those who loved her.
Christa Big Canoe called out the first words of the slogan: “No justice!” and we roared back, “No peace!”
Black activist Lena Peters said, “It’s important that we are here today because we are saying that we love missing and murdered Indigenous women … Those of us who feel the pain of no justice and no peace are inherently lovable. When we come together it is important that we seek peace. When we’re angry, when we meet in rage and in solidarity, continue to hold love for those of us who can’t be here, for those who don’t know how to be here.” She had to catch her breath. Her eyes moved over the crowd. “Thank you for showing up to love Cindy Gladue.”
Chanelle Gallant and a young Indigenous woman both spoke about the necessity of supporting people in the sex-trade right now, no matter how or why they are involved. The shame around sex work must end. Decriminalization is the only way to bring that labour out of the shadows, where abject violence—especially against Indigenous women—is normalized, ignored or considered accidental, no matter how grievous and intentional it may be. Again and again, the crowd of over two hundred people cheered, loudly, so that the Attorney General of Ontario and Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Harper would hear our voices (and be reminded of our votes). Hours before and hours after, echoing voices swept through the air across the country.
When the speakers were finished, the drummers played again. Then a woman danced.
It was a Fancy Shawl Dance. She lifted up her mantle like a bird’s wings as she moved to the drum-beat, back and forth, cross-stepping, swooping her arms down. Held fast to the earth, she flew, the bells on her beaded, beribboned dress ringing out. Her dance was hypnotic; she was turned inward, but the dance beat its steady tattoo straight down Bay Street. She claimed that piece of ground with her feet, with the strength and grace of her whole body, her life, many lives. Through the dance, she shared that patch of earth with us. That was the gift. Even though the protest was done, even though people made to go, we turned back to keep watching her, to stand in the extraordinary presence of power that does no harm.
For further reading, please see:
Excerpts of writings by Indigenous women activists and authors on decolonization, racism, sex work, and the Cindy Gladue case.
In response to federal funding cuts to Indigneous groups that maintained a database of missing and murdered Indigenous women, three organizations are now building and maintaining their own records and joint database. The “It Starts With Us” website also contains family tributes to and support information for the families and communities of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The three joint organizations behind the initiative are:
For information on the February 14th Women’s Memorial March.
For information on the October 4th Families of Sisters in Spirit Vigils.