On Oct. 19, 2007, Ashley Smith, an inmate at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, strangled herself with a strip of cloth and died while guards looked on.
Nineteen at the time of her death, Smith was originally sentenced at the age of 14 to one month in juvenile detention for the crime of throwing crabapples at a mail carrier. Diagnosed with ADHD, learning disorder, borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality traits, Smith proved too difficult a case for the system, and a series of confrontations in custody extended that one month to five years.
Another five years have passed in litigation, much of it defined by federal government attempts to prevent or delay the release of video recordings that show the way Smith was handled while in custody. The final attempt to suppress the footage failed last month, and it is now public.
In one episode, the prisoner sits shackled and hooded in an airplane seat. Her hands are duct-taped together, and she has soiled herself. We hear her moan, “How can it get any worse?” In a later installment inside a prison cell she is flat on a gurney surrounded by guards in riot gear, being forcefully injected with anti-psychotic drugs. As they hold her down she complains that they’re hurting her, but offers no resistance that would justify the force or the drugs. She wears only a hospital gown, and a fuzzy patch on the screen covers her genitals, a degree of privacy she was obviously denied at the time.
As the inquest unfolds and the videos are made public, opposition members have been asking questions in the House of Commons. True to their training, Conservative cabinet ministers have been responding with a prepared script in lieu of answers.
“This tragedy continues to show that individuals with mental health issues do not belong in prisons but in professional facilities,” it goes, followed by some self-praise about new measures to address this issue. But on Tuesday Public Safety Minister Vic Toews couldn’t resist breaking from the script to throw a jab at the Official Opposition, as follows: “I would note that the NDP, while consistently speaking on behalf of prisoners, never speaks on behalf of the victims of these prisoners.” He went on to advise New Democrats to take “a more balanced view about what it means to have a safe society.”
NDP leader Tom Mulcair called Toews on the outburst, asking, “Is that minister capable of understanding that she was the victim here?” The minister came back undeterred: “I would like to ask that member, who has never once stood and spoken for victims, why is it that he is always silent when it comes to victims outside of our prisons?”
It was classic Toews. For this minister, anyone who disagrees with his government’s policies stands with the Taliban, the child-pornographers, and the crabapple-throwers. In his mind, Ashley Smith was incarcerated, therefore anyone who speaks for her speaks for crime, and against victims.
Oddly, Toews has yet to speak out on the case of two repeat offenders, one of them currently incarcerated, who have been awarded Queen’s Jubilee medals by one of his Conservative colleagues, backbencher Maurice Vellacott. Mary Wagner and Linda Gibbons both have multiple convictions for mischief, for breaking the “bubble zone” law that protects clinics from the more aggressive actions of anti-abortion protesters.
Before bubble zone laws, gangs of anti-abortion protesters blocked access to clinics, threatening clients and workers, roughing them up, spitting on them, videotaping them and threatening them with reprisals. In some cases people whose licence plates were photographed later found mutilated dolls and fake blood on their doorsteps, and shell casings in their mail boxes with their names scratched into the brass. Often clinics which were the target of protests were also subject to bombings and arson, and several doctors were shot or stabbed.
There is no evidence to suggest that Wagner or Gibbons ever threw a crabapple at anyone, let alone stabbed a doctor. They have, on the other hand, trespassed in clinics, harassed staff and patients, and shown complete disregard for the law, as well as for women’s safety and privacy. Wagner has re-offended while on probation. Comparing Wagner to Martin Luther King, Vellacott was quite clear that it is not in spite of her crimes, but because of them that she is receiving the Queen’s medallion. As yet, neither Toews nor any other cabinet minister has raised an objection to this validation of criminal behaviour, nor spoken out for Wagner’s or Gibbons’s victims.
So now we have a picture of what Vic Toews means when he speaks of a more balanced view for a safe society. There are victims - postal workers pelted by crabapples for instance - there are perpetrators like Ashley Smith, who end up dead in an isolation cell, and there are decorated heroes like Wagner and Gibbons.
The Canadian Press reports that during her most recent offence, Mary Wagner “somehow gained access to a secure waiting room of a Toronto abortion clinic, had the waiting patients and their escorts in tears demanding her removal, then attempted to force her way through a door when staff ushered the patients into a more secure counselling and treatment area.”
I wonder if the minister would like to clarify one point. In his view, who was the victim in this scene?
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.