The story of an Indigenous woman in Alberta who was jailed and shackled for days as she waited to testify against the man who sexually assaulted her is becoming yet another symbol of the discrimination faced by Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
“Aren’t you supposed to commit a crime to go to jail?”
Though the case of Angela Cardinal, first reported by the CBC on Monday, appears to be rare, it has sparked public outcry, with the provincial justice minister wondering if this would have happened to a white woman.
“I’m the victim and look at me, I’m in shackles,” Cardinal, a Cree woman from Maskwacis who was later killed in an accidental shooting, told an Edmonton court in 2015 during preliminary hearings. “Aren’t you supposed to commit a crime to go to jail?”
A court-ordered publication ban prohibits the use of Cardinal’s real name, even though her family has been fighting to have her true identity revealed.
Sociologists and legal experts have for decades pointed out the ways in which people from Indigenous communities across Canada, especially women, are disproportionately incarcerated compared to the rest of the population, and are also more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. For one former Supreme Court justice, these are such symptoms of the “systemic racism” embedded in the system.
The reported sexual assault rate was nearly three times higher among Aboriginal people, compared to non-Aboriginal people.
A new document released on Tuesday by Statistics Canada underscores the issue, noting that in 2014, Indigenous women were 2.7 times more likely to have reported experiencing violent victimization than non-Indigenous women. The reported sexual assault rate was nearly three times higher among Aboriginal people, compared to non-Aboriginal people.
StatsCan notes that while the number of non-Aboriginal female victims has declined over the last few decades, for Indigenous women, it has gone up. “Aboriginal females account for an increasing proportion of female homicide victims, rising from one-tenth of all female homicide victims in 1980 to one-quarter in 2015,” the authors note.
The Cardinal case also highlights recurring problems around how courts handle victims of sexual assault, with judges facing rebuke in recent months for using myths and stereotypes against plaintiffs.
Cardinal, who was then 28, was held in the Edmonton Remand Centre during the preliminary hearing for the man who viciously beat and sexually assaulted her in an apartment building. While in custody, she was even forced to ride from the jail to the courthouse in the same van as her attacker, who was later convicted of a number of violent sex crimes.
Her ordeal prompted the province’s justice minister to apologize to Cardinal’s family and call an independent inquiry into the matter. Minister Kathleen Ganley also instructed a committee to propose policies that would prevent this from happening again.
“This is part of the way Aboriginal women are treated — as less than human beings.”
“The facts of this case are disturbing and tragic,” Galey said at a press conference on Monday. “There is plenty of blame to go around.” She stressed that while she hasn’t heard of this happening to anyone else, she wonders if race played a role in the prosecutor and judge’s decision to keep Cardinal in custody under a section of the Criminal Code regarding the detention of uncooperative witnesses.
“One of the questions that keeps me up at night is whether it would have been the case, that if this woman was Caucasian, and housed, and not addicted, whether this would have happened to her,” said Galey.
Progressive Conservative House Leader Ric McIver echoed her views, and told reporters : “If women of certain race or background are getting treated because of their race or background, that is inexcusable.”
Muriel Stanley Venne, the president of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women in Edmonton, told CBC News she was disgusted by the Cardinal case.
“This is part of the way Aboriginal women are treated — as less than human beings, and therefore not requiring the respect and dignity that any human being should be receiving in the courts,” she said.
When asked about the matter on Tuesday, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said: “Victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence must be accorded the respect and dignity that they deserve.”