MASKWACIS, Alberta (AP) — A homeless indigenous woman, victim of a stabbing and sexual assault, was forced to testify in shackles, then jailed in a cell alongside that of her attacker in a case that has roused indignation in Canada about the treatment of the people it calls the First Nations.
The Alberta provincial justice minister has launched two investigations, the chief judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta is reviewing the decision to detain the woman and activists are denouncing a legal system they say is chronically unfair to the indigenous.
“They would never do that to a white person. I don’t even think they would do it to a black person,” said Rick Lightning, an indigenous elder in Maskwacis, a community south of Edmonton where the woman grew up. “Then why is it OK to do it to an Indian?”
Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley has apologized to the family of the victim, a Cree woman whose name has not been made public because she was the victim of a sexual assault.
The woman’s mother, whose name also was withheld to protect her daughter’s identity, said she had been a “happy go lucky” girl who made others laugh. Court documents describe her as a good student who gravitated toward drugs in Edmonton, where she ended up homeless and addicted to crack.
There she encountered Lance Blanchard, more than twice her weight and 17 inches (43 centimeters) taller. He had recently been released from prison after serving time on charges that included sexual assault and manslaughter. Police called him an “extremely violent and opportunistic” offender in a public warning.
She was sleeping on the stairs of an apartment building in June 2014 and when she was seized at knifepoint and dragged to her attacker’s home, where she was stabbed and sexually assaulted. She tried to flee but her hands were so bloody they slipped from the door handle. Somehow, she managed to call 911 and police finally arrived, arresting Blanchard.
During a preliminary hearing almost a year later, authorities detained her for five days, worried the homeless addict living on the streets might not show up to testify against a dangerous assailant. According to court documents, she was “clearly agitated and aggressive” while testifying. Her “perceived lack of focus and cooperation” as well as a “perceived belief that she would not voluntarily reappear” led the court to order her into custody until the conclusion of her testimony.
The documents show Judge Raymond Bodnarek mistakenly called the witness “Ms. Blanchard,” the name of her assailant. The woman later apologized for her earlier behavior and said it resulted in part from the judge mistakenly calling her by the attacker’s name.
She was shackled throughout her testimony and handcuffed when not in court. She was also often put in a cell next to her assailant and driven to court in the same prisoner van at least twice.
In December, a different judge found Blanchard guilty of aggravated assault, kidnapping, unlawful confinement and aggravated sexual assault. That judge, Eric Macklin, expressed disgust at the woman’s treatment by authorities, calling it appalling.
Macklin noted that the woman never failed to appear in court, “Nevertheless … she remained in shackles,” he wrote.
“(She) emphasized again that she was the victim and not surprisingly, said the following: ‘I’m the victim and look at me: I’m in shackles. This is fantastic. This is a great … system.'”
The case didn’t come to public light until June, six months after the ruling, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a report on her treatment.
The woman died in December 2015, at age 28, after being struck by a stray bullet during a robbery at an Edmonton apartment. The man who fired the shot pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years.
Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of indigenous and northern affairs, said the woman’s treatment is a reminder of the inequities faced by the country’s indigenous, who were not even allowed to vote until 1961.
“The case demonstrates how much work we need to do,” Bennett said. “We have an obligation as a country to turn this around.”
The inequities are on display in Maskwacis, a rural community of gravel streets and graffiti-sprayed homes where people have struggled with unemployment, gang violence and drug abuse. The victim’s mother, visiting friends on a recent afternoon, cried when asked about her daughter.
“It hurts,” she told The Associated Press through a Cree translator. “It’s not an Indian thing; it’s a human being thing. How they treated my daughter was terrible.”
Gillies reported from Toronto.