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Short, tragic… meaningful

in It Takes All Kinds by

Canaries aren’t the most auspicious of birds. They come in various shades of brown and yellow. They are small. They live out their lives flitting amongst the grass, seeking tiny sources of sustenance that mean little to the grander, more powerful creatures they share their world with. They know the cast-off seeds. They know the tiny insects. They drink the dew. They know the feel of the grass on their tiny bodies as they move within.

But they are alive. They are free. They are their own.

They sing.

We all know the voice of the canary. We know it is beautiful even if we have never heard it, for we have been told.

Its reputation precedes it. Such is the beauty humankind has long sought in the company of the canary. We have sought the sound of its song. We have lusted for it. We have wanted it for ourselves.

And so, we caught the little canary and placed it in a cage.

We put the cage in a special place in our homes. We listen to it sing. We wonder at the sweet, beautiful song coming from the pretty little bird. We chose only the prettiest canaries and have bred them to a rich, bright yellow. We pay so much attention to that pretty little bird we forget most of its fellows are not so pretty at a casual glance.

But they sing just as well. And they teem. They teem in their tens of thousands.

Their song is not all that has been taken from them.

Not so long ago, hard, practical men caked with the dirt and foulness of the Earth would descend into the darkness in search of profit. They went where men were never meant to be. They went into the deep places of the Earth, places where the air they breathed could kill in minutes. They went because they had to. They went because they were practical.

They brought the canary with them. When the canary’s song changed, they knew trouble was coming. When the canary died, the men knew disaster loomed. They knew that place would soon take them. Profit means nothing in the face of such a thing. They fled.

The canary’s life was short and tragic. But it was meaningful.

One canary’s solitary confinement

On Oct. 19, 2007, Ashley Smith sat in solitary confinement and improvised the ligature that would kill her out of the meagre possessions provided her by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). They were not her possessions. They were the property of the CSC. She knew that very well. The point had been made to her emphatically.

On the numerous other occasions over the preceding two years Ashley had torn the CSC’s clothes and bedding into strips in her search for release from the hell that had become her life; Ashley’s prison bank account was charged accordingly. That is correct. The time was taken to ensure that the CSC was properly reimbursed for all the great damage this 19-year-old child could do. That particular cost came to an end on Oct. 19, 2007. Ashley succeeded. She finally managed to kill herself. One wonders if her account was debited in the aftermath.

Ashley died on the cold, hard floor of that cell under the gaze of her protectors and keepers. She was 19 years old.

Her journey began after she was jailed for throwing crabapples at a postman while under court order. She was incarcerated for that infraction and would never leave the system alive. Ashley Smith was mentally ill. Ashley Smith was autonomous and had dignity. She fought every effort made to take her autonomy and dignity as she fell through every crack and struck every sharp edge on her way down, finally landing on that cold hard floor.

She sang her song until the end. Now there is silence in the space that was her.

Her song came to an end amidst the spiritual poison found in ‘The Hole’ as it is known to those who experience its business end, ‘Administrative Segregation’ to those looking in through the cameras. It kills people. You could call it ‘Room 101’ if you wanted. You could call it the ‘memory hole’. It really doesn’t matter. It kills people. The rate of suicide in our prisons is seven times the rate amongst the general public. Half of those suicides occur down the memory hole.

 We took a troubled child and instead of giving her healing, we gave her a cement floor to die on.

Ashley Smith spent two years living in the memory hole. That is not supposed to be possible. It is, however, if you are transferred 17 times in a year between eight institutions, thereby avoiding internal review. This can happen when you are a problem no one is sufficiently motivated to deal with properly.

It did happen. It happened to Ashley. It happened in Canada. We took a troubled child and instead of giving her healing, we gave her a cement floor to die on.

The inquest into her death declared she was a victim of homicide. It gave 104 recommendations. One particularly enlightened recommendation suggested mentally ill people in segregation should not meet with health care professionals through the food slot in their door.

Last Thursday, the CSC finally responded to those 104 recommendations.

They are going to consult with stakeholders to develop a strategy “going forward”. They will not be implementing any of the truly substantive recommendations, per se, but they realize there is a problem and they will work with us, “going forward”. They will continue to use the memory hole, “going forward”. They insist it be called administrative segregation, “going forward”.

They will not commit to ensuring regular attendance of mental health professionals to those in the memory hole, “going forward”. They will not ensure those meetings they will not endorse do not occur through the food slot, “going forward”. They will not commit to the prohibition of indefinite placement of human beings in the memory hole, “going forward”.

Presumably, future Ashleys can expect their accounts to be debited accordingly, “going forward”. It is a complex problem. The complexity naturally requires consultation, and a balanced approach, going forward. The appropriate balance will be struck, going forward. We’ll have to work together on this complex problem, going forward.

Ashley is gone. Her song has ceased. The canary has died.

And those hard, practical men are still going forward. Down into the darkness.

“The song of many is changing”

When I first read of Ashley, I wept. I leaned on the counter of my suburban home, a home Ashley will never have, and wept. I remember being 14, the same age she was when those hard, practical men started down into the darkness with her. I could have been Ashley. I and thousands of other young Canadians.

But I am a pretty canary. I say that with no small degree of guilt and sense of injustice. Selected and saved. Given a special place in the house. Wondered at. Listened to. Praised. Praised while my brothers and sisters languish in alleyways, group homes, basements and cubicles, hiding from their fellows in fear of judgment.

I’ve been singing for years. I sing now. That’s what canaries do.

On every street in our land, there is an Ashley.

There are masses of parents who go to bed at night wondering whether their child will be alive in the morning. Suicide kills virtually as many as breast cancer, yet mental health receives a sliver of resources by comparison.

We have a disorganized, disconnected, grotesquely underfunded patchwork quilt of services and supports that has created a survival of the fittest scenario. It is those fortunate enough to have a mother or father with the wherewithal, gumption and luck necessary to find the relevant support or service that makes the difference. It feels random. If you are lucky, the world will arbitrarily deem you a pretty canary. Good luck.

I look from my gilded cage into hers. I see we are the same. I see her song has stopped. I see people saying it is all very complex. I see we are still going forward.

The trouble is, it is not complex. Ashley was here. Now she is not. I find it very simple: Our culture is failing people with mental health problems massively. It does so largely because people with mental health issues have historically failed to find the necessary unity to demand respect.

We have been easy to ignore. We have been easy to put in the memory hole.

An historically unprecedented organization has come to exist in this province. It is called the Community Coalition For Mental Health. It did not exist. It now does. That is not complex. Tens of mental health and related social services and progressive organizations have joined. We have begun to sing together. We are growing. The song of many is changing. The miners have noticed, but what they do remains to be seen. We sing as much for them as ourselves.

It is time to stop going forward. It is time to return to the light of the world above, before the mine takes us.

John 1:5Ashley Smith’s life was short and tragic. But it was meaningful. She was a human being. She was beautiful. She will never be forgotten. She was a pretty canary. Few appear to have noticed.

But she was.

We all are.

Listen carefully. Hear our song change.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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