Alberta justice minister apologizes for 'appalling' treatment of sexual assault victim
On a Monday afternoon in June 2015, Angela Cardinal was led into an Edmonton courtroom handcuffed and in leg shackles. Metallic rattling echoed as a sheriff escorted the 28-year-old to the witness stand.
She was not the accused, but rather a victim — called to testify at a preliminary hearing after she was savagely attacked and sexually assaulted by a notorious sexual predator.
"I'm the victim and look at me, I'm in shackles," she told provincial court Judge Raymond Bodnarek.
"You're going to go back to remand tonight," he replied, "so that we can get you back here tomorrow."
"Shackles," she spat. "Aren't you supposed to commit a crime to go to jail?"
Cardinal was forced to spend a total of five nights in the Edmonton Remand Centre during her testimony.
Angela Cardinal is not the woman's real name. A publication ban prohibits CBC from identifying her even though she died in an unrelated, accidental shooting months after testifying at the preliminary hearing.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley was appalled when CBC News told her of Cardinal's treatment.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said she was shocked and appalled by the justice system's treatment of Angela Cardinal. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)
"I was very surprised that our system would have allowed something like this to happen … I think that anyone would be shocked by it."
Ganley said she has already formed a special committee to look at the case to review policies, with an eye to making what she calls "aggressive changes." As well, criminal lawyer Roberta Campbell, outgoing president of the Law Society of Manitoba, will head an independent investigation into the treatment of Cardinal.
"She was the victim. We should have treated her as the victim. And I think it definitely speaks to a series of wrong decisions and a series of systemic failures that would have allowed us to do something like this to this young woman."
Cardinal, a Cree woman from Maskwacis, about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, moved to the city when she was 14.
On a June afternoon in 2014, she was tired and hungry, with nowhere to call home. She convinced a tenant to let her inside a central Edmonton apartment building. She had no idea that Lance Blanchard, a career criminal, lived on the second floor.
Convicted sexual predator Lance Blanchard, shown hours after he attacked Angela Cardinal in June 2014. (Edmonton Police Service)
Curled up in the stairwell next to a baseboard heater, Cardinal sang herself to sleep with This Little Light of Mine. But she awoke to a knife at her throat. Holding it was a six-foot-seven-inch, 260-pound convicted sexual predator.
At just over five feet tall, weighing only 109 pounds, Cardinal was at a clear disadvantage.
"Blanchard came out of nowhere, bat out of hell, grabbing me," Cardinal testified.
She said he dragged her by the hair, up the stairs, to his dirty, cluttered apartment.
"He started stabbing me," Cardinal said. "He said he was going to make me ugly and stick me in a closet and keep me. He started banging my head off the ground."
Angela Cardinal's shoes and socks were removed by Blanchard and left behind on a blood-stained couch in his apartment. (Edmonton Police Service)
Exhibit photos show Cardinal's jacket and shoes on a blood-soaked couch. Blanchard held her at knifepoint, removed her clothing and fondled her.
"I felt disgusting," Cardinal told court. "I wanted to get away as fast as possible, but I couldn't. I was praying I would die before anything else happened."
Blanchard grabbed electrical cords to tie up her legs. Court transcripts show he tried to stab her in the chest, but Cardinal put up her left hand to protect herself. Blood poured from a deep cut to her palm.
She made a run for the door, but couldn't turn the knob with her slippery, bloody hands.
Blanchard was on top of Cardinal's back when she pulled out a hidden phone, dialled 911, put it on speaker and threw it across the room.
The six-minute phone call to police was chaotic. On a recording, Cardinal can be heard screaming frantically in the background, "Help me. Somebody, help me. I've been stabbed."
It took 27 stitches to repair the wound to her hand. Her body was covered with cuts. One eye was black and blue. Her neck was bruised from where Blanchard tried to choke her.
It took 27 stitches to close the wound on Cardinal's hand after she was attacked by a knife-wielding Lance Blanchard. (Edmonton Police Service )
One year later, on June 5, 2015, Cardinal had to face her attacker again, at his preliminary hearing.
On the first day she was called to testify, she kept falling asleep. She had trouble focusing and answering questions.
At the request of Crown prosecutor Patricia Innes, Bodnarek ordered that Cardinal spend the weekend at the Edmonton Remand Centre. Both were concerned about her physical and mental state.
Innes suggested Cardinal had "presented in a condition unsuitable for testifying, and we don't know what the reason is."
Bodnarek determined he had authority to detain Cardinal under Section 545(1)(b) of the Criminal Code, which applies to witnesses who refuse to answer questions.
When Cardinal returned to court after a weekend in custody, she pleaded with the judge to be "unremanded."
"It's not a pleasant scene I'm living," she said. "Like, I'm the fricking victim here and I mean, like, come on. You sit in the back of those cells. It feels like an hour went by but really it's only 20 minutes."
Cardinal asked to be released to stay with her mother. She promised she would return to court to continue her testimony.
Bodnarek refused, but told her: "We're going to make sure that all efforts will be made to keep you separate from Mr. Blanchard."
But both Blanchard and Cardinal were detained at the same facility. It was later revealed that at least twice, Cardinal had to travel in the same cramped prisoner transport van as her attacker. The remand centre and Edmonton's courthouse are 15 kilometres apart.
During court breaks, Cardinal was usually placed in a cell close to Blanchard.
"None of us will ever really understand what it was like for her to sit there and stare at the man who did this to her," Ganley said. "While she's trapped, essentially."
Deb Tomlinson has spent decades working with sex assault survivors. She is currently the CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.
"I just felt really, really sad. And certainly angry as well," Tomlinson said after learning about the case. "First of all, that this young woman was taken advantage of and sexually assaulted. And then was — in many ways — taken advantage of and retraumatized by the system that she sought to seek justice through."
Sex assault victims require specialized support throughout the entire process, including testifying, Tomlinson said.
"And this was the farthest thing from victim support that I've ever seen."
Seven months after Cardinal testified at the preliminary hearing, she became a victim once again, gunned down in an accidental shooting. The man who shot her pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
While alive, Cardinal never told her mother about the assault or about her experience testifying.
"She didn't say anything to us," Cardinal's mother said tearfully, when CBC News shared the details with her in April. "She said she had to go to court. That's all she told me."
She is outraged by the way her daughter was treated. "It's not right. And after all what he did to her, it's not fair."
Blanchard was ultimately committed to stand trial. When the case was heard in Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench, Cardinal's testimony from the preliminary hearing was allowed in as evidence, as she was no longer alive to testify.
Last December, Justice Eric Macklin found Blanchard guilty of aggravated assault, kidnapping, unlawful confinement, aggravated sexual assault, possession of a weapon and threatening to cause death or bodily harm.
Blanchard remains behind bars. The Crown will be asking to have him designated as a dangerous offender.
"Her treatment by the justice system was appalling. She is owed an apology."
After CBC News alerted Ganley to the details of the case, she read Macklin's decision herself.
Last month, the justice minister took it upon herself to call Cardinal's mother to apologize. She described the conversation as "emotional" and "difficult."
Ganley said she regrets not being able to apologize directly to the victim.
"I know there's nothing that can ever be done to make it up," she said. "But I certainly hope we can find a way to never let this happen again."