EDMONTON — Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley is demanding answers after it was revealed a sex assault victim was shackled and jailed during her case and was even forced to ride in a prison van with her attacker.
Ganley announced Monday she has launched two investigations into the case.
"The facts of this case are disturbing and tragic, and when you add in the treatment of the victim in the system, they are almost incomprehensible,'' said Ganley. "What is clear is that both policies and people failed in this case.''
Ganley said she wants to know if the fact that the woman was indigenous and living on the street played a role in how she was treated by the justice system.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley fields a question at the closing news conference of a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial justice and public safety ministers in Halifax on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. (Photo: CP)
"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,'' Ganley told a legislature news conference.
The 28-year-old woman, who was from central Alberta, was forced to spend five nights in the Edmonton Remand Centre during her testimony at a 2015 preliminary hearing for Lance Blanchard, the man who attacked her.
"The facts of this case are disturbing and tragic.''
— Kathleen Ganley, Alberta justice minister
Court heard the woman was homeless and sleeping in an apartment stairwell when she was attacked and dragged into Blanchard's apartment. She suffered stab wounds to her temple and hand as she attempted to fight off the sexual assault.
Court documents indicate the woman had trouble focusing and answering questions, so the hearing judge agreed with a Crown prosecutor's request to have her spend the weekend in custody.
Forced to travel with attacker
The complainant was forced to testify about her June 2014 assault in Edmonton while she was shackled and handcuffed and, on at least two occasions, she had to travel in the same prisoner van as her attacker.
A different judge — who found Blanchard guilty of aggravated assault, kidnapping, unlawful confinement and aggravated sexual assault — noted the woman's treatment in his decision last December.
"She was clearly distraught and, using her word, 'panicking.' She was somewhat belligerent,'' Justice Eric Macklin wrote. "Concerns were expressed as to her behaviour and whether she would voluntarily reattend on the following Monday to continue her testimony.''
Macklin expressed regret that the young woman was kept in custody.
"She was remanded into custody on the mistaken belief that she was 'a flight risk' and that she was simply incapable of participating properly in the court proceedings,'' he wrote. "Her treatment by the justice system in this respect was appalling. She is owed an apology.''
Victim later killed in a shooting
That apology never came as she was killed in an unrelated shooting six months after her testimony.
Macklin noted the woman, whose name is protected under a publication ban, was never missing and had never failed to appear in court.
"Nevertheless ... she remained in shackles,'' Macklin 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.'''
Ganley has hired Manitoba criminal lawyer Roberta Campbell to investigate what happened. A separate committee made up of representatives from police, the Crown prosecutors office, court services and victim services will make recommendations to fix gaps in policy.
“I'm the victim and look at me. I'm in shackles.”
— Sexual assault victim, according to Justice Eric Macklin
Ganley said she has already apologized to the victim's mother.
She also noted that any prosecutor who decides to use a section of the Criminal Code that allows for witnesses to be held in custody for refusing to testify must have the decision approved by the chief Crown prosecutor.
"I don't think it's too strong to say that this is a horrific situation,'' said Kim Stanton, legal director for LEAF, Women's Legal Education and Action Fund. "I hope that it is unusual because it's beyond appalling.''
System continues to fail victims
Stanton said the woman's treatment highlights how the justice system continues to fail victims of sexual assault.
"It's beyond belief,'' she said. "It's just egregious that she had to spend the weekend there and subsequent nights. Surely somebody in that courtroom could have come up with an alternative solution.''
With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary.