Family seeks return of Cindy Gladue’s remains from Alberta medical examiner’s office

The family of Cindy Gladue, a 36 year-old Cree-Métis woman whose killer was found guilty last week, wants Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to return her remains so they can lay her to rest.

Gladue, a mother of three daughters who now have children of their own, was found dead in an Edmonton hotel room in 2011. 

It took two trials and 10 years to convict her killer Bradley Barton, who was found guilty of manslaughter by a jury on Feb. 19. 

Gladue’s family has written to the province’s chief medical examiner to return the part of her body used as evidence during the first trial of Barton, a chain-smoking, Mississauga, Ont., truck driver, who was initially found not guilty by a jury of first-degree murder and manslaughter charges in 2015. 

The use of Gladue’s body part as evidence was the first time in Canadian courtroom history that preserved human tissue was used in a trial. It sent shockwaves — and has been called both a “barbaric” indignity and an example of systemic racism in the justice system. 

Prairie Adaoui, 41, Gladue’s cousin, said the family wants to say their final goodbyes, but can’t until they retrieve her remains which are still under the responsibility of the province’s medical examiner’s officer. 

“It’s been 10 years. My cousin, part of her remains are still locked away. We haven’t been able to get closure, go to ceremony,” said Adaoui. 

“I think that’s wrong…. We haven’t been able to lay her to rest because she’s still sitting somewhere.”

Prairie Adaoui, Cindy Gladue’s cousin, says Gladue should be remembered as a daughter, mother, grandmother. (David Rae/CBC)

The family sent a letter to the chief medical examiner, signed by Donna McLeod, Gladue’s mother, the same day the jury reached its guilty verdict.

“The remains of my late daughter, Cindy Gladue, have been held by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner as evidence for the past 10 years,” said the letter. 

“I am sending this letter to request her remains be returned to me and her family so we may lay her to rest.”

Lawrence Van Dyke, one of two Crown prosecutors who handled Barton’s second trial, said the Crown’s office has no say over the fate or return of the remains. 

“The Crown does not have control over Ms. Gladue’s remains,” said Van Dyke, in an interview with CBC News.

“That’s something that’s in the control of the medical examiner’s office and has always been in the control of the medical examiner’s office.”

The chief medical examiner’s office sent CBC News a statement, through the provincial Justice Ministry, saying it couldn’t comment because of privacy laws..

‘Barbaric’ treatment of Indigenous woman

In a trial marred by repeated uses of stereotypes to describe Gladue — “Native” lady, sex worker — it was was seen as a final indignity against Gladue whose family also suffered through repeated, detailed descriptions of her brutal death in exhibits, Crown and defence arguments.

“Why would a court ever allow such a display of disrespect and degradation to occur to a victim’s body?” wrote Indigenous lawyer Christa Big Canoe, in a 2015 opinion piece for CBC News, before she became lead counsel for the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

“Technology should have played a significant role in any demonstration by expert witnesses. Instead of using other tools and alternatives, Cindy’s vagina was used as a demonstration tool. This is both offensive and re-victimizing.”

Beverly Jacobs, now associate dean of the Windsor Law School, said in a 2019 statement that the trial court’s treatment of Gladue’s body was “barbaric” and a “violation of Indigenous laws in caring for the deceased.”

Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Robert Graesser allowed the use of Gladue’s remains in the first trial. The body part was brought into an adjacent room and live-streamed into the courtroom so Alberta’s then-chief medical examiner Graeme Dowling could explain his theory on what caused Gladue’s internal 11 cm wound.

Members of Cindy Gladue’s family gathered around a backyard fire recently in anticipation of the verdict in her killer’s second trial. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Julie Kaye, an assistant professor professor at the department of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, said the justice system, as a whole, needs to be held accountable for the “violence it perpetuated” against Gladue and against all Indigenous women through its decision. 

“I don’t think there was anyone in this country … women in particular, and especially Indigenous women, who didn’t feel, who weren’t traumatized in some way or deeply harmed by what happened in this case,” said Kaye, who is also friends with the family. 

“There were so many individuals within that system at any point in time that could have stopped this or really questioned … what is it that our system is doing here?”

Kaye was involved, through her work with the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women at the time, during legal interventions on appeals of the 2015 not-guilty verdict, which went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

In 2019, the Supreme Court ordered a new manslaughter trial for Barton citing failures in Graesser’s instruction to the jury in explaining the law around consent and the violent action inflicted by Barton against Gladue.

The family is now waiting for this final chapter to conclude so they can finally lay Gladue’s ashes to rest. 

“This is just still open.” said Adaoui. 

“We haven’t even been able to really heal.”

With files from Madeline McNair

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