The 2010 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 14, 2011.
CBC’s the fifth estate won the 2010 Michener Award for its reporting on the incarceration and death of Ashley Smith, a seriously troubled teenager who spent the last four years of her life behind bars for a minor offence. What was originally a 30-day sentence for throwing crabapples at a postal worker became a life sentence for Smith as in-custody incidents kept prolonging her jail time.
Your Excellency, distinguished guests, fellow colleagues.
I am honoured to be here representing CBC Television’s the fifth estate. This is a particularly poignant and significant occasion for me. This is my last act as a member of this celebrated investigative documentary program. And may I say – what a swell retirement party this is.
Our investigation into Ashley Smith’s short life and untimely death began with what has become an all too familiar and very disturbing description of her last moments.
19 year-old Ashley Smith strangled herself to death at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, on October 19, 2007, as prison guards watched and videotaped. They were on orders not to enter if Ashley was still breathing. Everything about that sounded outrageous.
And as we unravelled the sad and sordid saga of how this teenager’s life came to such a pitiful end, we also uncovered much about our federal prison system’s treatment of the mentally ill, and about the lack of transparency and accountability at the correctional service of Canada.
Ashley Smith’s story is not about some hardened criminal but a mentally disturbed kid who got 30 days for pelting a postman with crab-apples.
Institutional charges would turn that one month sentence into nearly four years – most of it spent in solitary.
The correctional service of Canada blocked our investigation at every turn. They even took the 5th Estate to court to prevent us from getting our hands on the videotape taken by guards.
Ashley Smith’s story engaged me as a journalist, but also as a mother. Ashley’s mom, Coralee Smith really got to me when she said: “ What did my daughter do that was so bad she had to die?
Coralee wanted Canadians to know what happens to the mentally ill in our Federal prisons. She asked us to show and tell, how her daughter ended up on that concrete floor, while prison guards watched her die.
We did everything we could to make that happen. It took two years, many lawyers and several appeals, because our justice system guards court exhibits like state secrets.
Reporters are frequently and summarily denied access to documents, videotapes and evidence. Days before our story was scheduled to air, a judicial panel issued a landmark court ruling. Their unanimous 3-0 decision set aside arguments put forward by Corrections Canada and ruled that media have the right to unfettered access to all exhibits before the court.
The fifth estate’s legal victory was a game changer. The precedent set by our case has made it possible for other journalists to obtain previously sealed material.
In spite of that, Corrections Canada continues its efforts to stop media from publishing that which we have already made public.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 14, 2011.