Canada’s Highway, Prisons, Foster Homes, and Schools of Tears

The Ashley Smith inquest continues. Ashley Smith was a 19-year-old woman prisoner who troubled the government of Canada too much with her constant acting out and suicide attempts, and so, finally, was allowed to commit suicide while seven guards stood and watched.

The guards, four women and three men, have now testified. They all say their hands were tied; they were only following orders. They’re very sorry, even anguished, for how Ashley Smith died. They know they failed her, they know the State failed her. They were misinformed. They were told Ashley’s problems were “behavioral not mental.” Behavioral not mental is code for in control of one’s actions. When the madwoman in the attic is a 19-year-old in solitary confinement, somehow she becomes `sane.’ The guards say they knew something was wrong, but the doctors had told them otherwise. It was a victory of military discipline over human and common sense.

Some ask, “How does an 18-year-old end up doing serious time in a federal prison for throwing crab apples at a postman?” Others wonder if Ashley Smith’s death was suicide or murder. Did Ashley Smith die or was she killed?

The Ashley Smith inquest continues, and Ashley Smith is still dead.

Here’s another question. Is Ashley Smith’s experience an isolated one? How does Canada treat its troublesome children? Three current reports suggest that the treatment of Ashley Smith is more common public policy than exceptional horror.

One study documents “ongoing police failures to protect indigenous women and girls” in Northern British Columbia. This “failure to protect” includes gang rape, torture, abduction, and a whole menu of violence. This “failure to protect” has contributed to the construction of what many call the Highway of Tears, as has the national government’s `failure’ to care about the lives of indigenous women and girls. That’s not failure. That’s refusal, and it’s an aggressive public policy, not an omission or lack of action.

A second study follows a 13-year-old Aboriginal child from cradle to cage. Taken from his parents at an early age, he was tossed from one foster home to another. Most of them were abusive environments. The one foster parent who actually cared and tried to take care of the boy couldn’t get help from the State, and so had to give the child up. When the boy turned eight, and was in a residential facility, the staff started disciplining him by calling in the police. And so began his life of being Tasered, followed by time in prison.

His story is a common one. In British Columbia, of children and youth `in care’ more enter into the juvenile criminal justice system than graduate from high school. One in six youth in care have been in youth custody. Close to one-third of the youth in the juvenile justice system is Aboriginal, which pretty much accords with the adult prisons. As above, so below. That’s equality in a prison State; that’s public policy.

An unpublished study reports that more than 3000 Aboriginal children died in Indian residential schools. Children died of disease, malnutrition, and accidents. Children froze to death. From the 1870s to the 1990s, 150,000 First Nations children were forced through the meat grinder of “civilizing” instruction, and at least 2% of them died in house. The names of 500 of the 3000 dead are still unknown. What is known is that in 1917, the Department of Indian Affairs stopped reporting the deaths and death rates of Aboriginal students in residential `care’: “It was obviously a policy not to report them.”

In each instance, from the 3000 Aboriginal children to the one Aboriginal child to hundreds of missing Aboriginal women and girls to Ashley Smith, the State responded with silence, followed by denial.

The Highway of Tears is not a road to nowhere. It leads to the Prisons of Tears, to the Foster Homes of Tears, to the Schools of Tears. Ashley Smith’s suffering is part of the brutal disposal of children in a world in which care is forced to surrender to the business of security as usual.


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