Thursday Thinkpiece: Looking for Ashley — What Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals About Governance of Girls, Mothers and Families in Canada

DateJuly 14, 2016

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Looking for Ashley: What Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals About Governance of Girls, Mothers and Families in Canada
© 2015 Demeter Press. Reprinted with permission.

Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich, Professor, Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University (@RebeccaBromwich)

Excerpt: Chapter 1: The Project

Telling Stories

Once upon a time, many years ago, I bought a typewriter. It became one of very few things I owned. I also owned a field hockey stick because I played on my high school team. That, my clothes, my winter coat and my journals, were about all I had put on or stuffed into plastic garbage bags and carried off. I hadn’t remembered to take a toothbrush but by then I had bought one. It was winter in Calgary, –30 Celsius, cold enough to take your breath away, so cold there was no point in crying because tears would just freeze on my face. I had ridden the C-Train to Value Village, about an hour’s trip each way, and walked several blocks through blowing dry prairie snow carrying that small black ancient typewriter back to the train. It cost all of my money: $15. I bought it and then I stole food.

I had a plan. I bought a typewriter so I could tell my story. I wanted to tell a story about my interactions with health, child welfare, education, family and criminal legal systems and how angry I was about them, how disappointed I was in everyone. In a dark rented basement room, hunched over that typewriter with my field hockey stick near me for protection against any possible intruders, clothes folded on the floor as I had no hangers, at sixteen I promised to write. I clacked away, hammering out the first pages that I promised myself would be a transformative story about what it was like to be limited, restrained and oppressed as an adolescent girl in Canada. It was slow going. The “a” stuck. Every time I typed an “a” I had to pull the key back up.

There are a lot of years between the writing of this book and that promise. I have tried to fulfill it in a number of ways. I became a lawyer to large extent to remedy what I experienced and perceived as injustice. I did criminal defense work and represented young mothers in child protection and domestic violence proceedings. Now, I do law reform work, attempting to make changes to the formal discourses of legislative and regulatory provisions. When I did my LL.M., I was actively involved (in a very junior capacity) in advocacy accepted in the crafting of Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in 2001. I have a lot for which to be very grateful. I have a lot to be happy about. Many of the legislative changes I sought to include in the YCJA have been made. Now, ironically, I am, to a very large extent, someone else: not an adolescent girl but the lawyer mother of three girls (and a boy) soon to enter adolescence. I can’t really write the story I wanted to tell. I have the pages I wrote, somewhere. I don’t know what became of that typewriter. We all use computers now.

I am worried in light of recent cases and in particular the case of an adolescent girl who died in prison named Ashley Smith, that the law reform work in which I have been engaged is not getting to the heart of the problems I experienced. Feminist theorists have contended that hegemonic discourses in late modern liberal discourse define and socialize adolescent young women as something less than we are: they move us from an experience of ourselves as agents to a relegation in a particular space defined by our relationships with men. I wonder how contemporary discursive figurations of the girl, how we talk about adolescent young women, continue to affect the agencies of variously situated adolescent young women in their experiences with criminal and quasi-criminal legality. Restlessly, I wonder how the conditions of possibility for young people in Canada could be transformed; I feel a sense of growing urgency as time passes; how might changes be effected before my own children enter adolescence?

Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so literal in remembering my plan. Maybe the central question for me to consider is my longing, the longing that led me with my last few dollars to go to Value Village on the C-Train and walk those long cold blocks carrying the black typewriter back, enjoying seeing in my breath like smoke over it — a confirmation of my existence — my hands burning from the cold despite the gloves over them. More than anything else maybe what I felt was a desire to speak, to talk back, to have a role in authoring my own story, not just on paper but to...

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