TORONTO – Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly criticized correctional authorities on Thursday for their handling of a disturbed teenager who choked to death in her cell five years ago, prompting opposition accusations of federal government dishonesty.
The issue reached the House of Commons following the screening of disturbing jailhouse video at an inquest into the death of Ashley Smith this week that shows guards duct-taping her and drugging her against her will.
“The Ashley Smith case is obviously a terrible tragedy,” Harper said.
However, information has come to light that shows Corrections Canada’s behaviour was “completely unacceptable,” he told the House of Commons.
Outside the Commons, Liberal Leader Bob Rae accused the Conservative government of being “dishonest.”
“This is a government that wanted to stop the showing of those videos,” Rae said.
“This is a government that, every step of the way, attempted to keep Canadians from seeing what went on.”
While federal lawyers lost a court battle to keep the videos under wraps, they are still fighting to limit the scope of the inquest, which would block scrutiny of what happened to Smith in prisons outside Ontario.
Harper said he would let “arguments between lawyers” play out without interference.
Smith choked to death as guards looked on in October 2007 at a prison in Kitchener, Ont. She had spent the past year of her life in segregation, shunted among prisons in five provinces.
Also Thursday, Smith’s family released documents their lawyer said showed a “shoddy” criminal investigation into how prison authorities in Quebec had treated Smith.
“When Ashley was alive, the system turned a blind eye to her and ultimately, she was abused right into death,” lawyer Julian Falconer said.
“In the wake of her death, what you see is the family crying out for authorities to step in and investigate what on its face are different forms of torture, and the answer we get back is the same blind eye.”
The probe followed a plea by her family to the RCMP that Smith had been restrained and given anti-psychotic and other drugs against her will without any legal or medical justification.
The RCMP, claiming it had no jurisdiction, passed the complaint to Quebec provincial police, who investigated three incidents in July 2007 at the federally-run Joliette prison in Montreal.
Prison authorities gave the investigating officer access to Smith’s administrative file and surveillance videos, some of which were shown at the inquest into her death on Wednesday, but not to her medical file, according to the documents made available by the family.
The provincial police report found authorities used force on Smith “when she behaved contrary to regulation.”
Smith was calm but her behaviour was “not in accordance with acceptable behaviour by an inmate,” the report states.
While there may have been “deviations from internal procedure,” they were minor, no excessive force was used, and the actions did not amount to anything criminal, the investigator concluded.
As to whether the use of sedatives was an abuse, police pointed the family at the College of Physicians.
A report by a psychiatrist, Dr. Beaudry, prepared for the correctional investigator, concluded there was no imminent risk to Smith’s health or the safety of others.
Falconer called the Quebec police probe “embarrassingly shoddy.” He noted police did not even look at Smith’s medical file.
Clips screened at the inquest showed a nurse injecting Smith over her objections as half-a-dozen guards in full riot gear restrained her.
Although the family’s complaints were made to the RCMP, the agency refused to look into the issues.
“Although you feel that the RCMP is the policing agency that should conduct an investigation of this nature, we respectfully disagree,” RCMP Supt. Paul Bateman wrote to Falconer last year.
“Accordingly, we have recommended that you contact the police of local jurisdiction.”
The family also asked for a criminal-negligence probe over management directives to guards at the Grand Valley prison in Kitchener where Smith died.
Guards were ordered to stay out of Smith’s segregation cell to remove any ligature around her neck unless she stopped breathing.
The result was Smith choked to death while guards did nothing.
Waterloo region police laid no charges, although it was not immediately clear what they based that on.