Coralee Cusack-Smith, a Moncton mother of two whose forceful advocacy following the death of her imprisoned daughter, Ashley Smith, compelled deep changes within Canada’s correctional system, died on May 9. She was 75.
Her death was reported by Senator Kim Pate, a long-time advocate for prisoners’ rights, who met Ashley in prison shortly before her death and became close with the Smith family as they fought an elusive battle for justice behind bars.
“You have to fight for your children,” Ms. Cusack-Smith told The Globe on Dec. 19, 2013, the day a coroner’s inquest jury ruled Ashley’s death a homicide. “My girls meant the world to me.”
Coralee Cusack was born on Sept. 21, 1947, in Moncton, the third of six siblings, to Madeleine and Roy Cusack, a homebuilder and roofer.
Evidence of her devotion to family emerged at age 21, when she lost a thumb in a car accident and used the insurance money to buy a house for herself, her parents and her first child, Dawna Ward.
“It was an idyllic upbringing,” recalled Ms. Ward, now 54. “I just remember family picnics and get-togethers. She was very close with her siblings who worshipped and adored me.”
The young mother shelved dreams of a university degree to care for her daughter and parents while working a clerical job at an engineering firm in the city. By her late 30s, her father had died and Dawna had moved out, so she sold the house and enrolled in sociology and psychology classes at the University of Prince Edward Island. During her studies, she got married and adopted an infant, Ashley. The marriage soon faltered, however, and she returned to New Brunswick, young daughter in tow.
There, she rekindled a relationship with an old flame, Herb Gorber. Together they raised Ashley while Ms. Cusack-Smith completed her degree at Mount Allison University.
She would describe Ashley as a “smiling and happy” child.
At age 13, things changed. Ashley was charged for shoving people in the street. By Grade 9, her school expelled her for disruptive behavior. At 15, she threw crab apples at a postal worker and landed in solitary confinement at New Brunswick Youth Centre. She would remain in custody for the next four years, racking up institutional charges that prolonged her sentence and logging more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement as she moved from youth custody to the federal system at age 18.
On Oct. 19, 2007, Ms. Cusack-Smith had a cordless phone at her side, waiting for a call from Ashley, when two unfamiliar people walked up her driveway to tell her that her 19-year-old daughter had died in prison.
The prison service told Ms. Cusack-Smith that Ashley had died by suicide. Ms. Pate knew the truth was far more sinister and advised Ms. Cusack-Smith to get a good lawyer.
In March, 2008, The Globe published excerpts from court documents showing that Ashley had died by self-strangulation while seven guards watched from outside her cell because they were instructed to intervene only if Ashley stopped breathing.
“She was treated like a criminal, not a girl who needed help,” Ms. Cusack-Smith told The Globe at the time. “You’ve got a family here who’s heartbroken over our loss. Life will never be the same. Ashley can’t come back. Her demise was at the hand of the system, a system that just plain didn’t tend to her needs.”
With her lawyer, Julian Falconer, she fought the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) for access to video evidence of her daughter’s demise. Some of that video, reviewed at a subsequent coroner’s inquest, showed Ashley wearing two spit hoods and being duct-taped to an airplane seat during a prison transfer. In another clip she was strapped to a gurney and forcibly tranquilized.
Ms. Cusack-Smith appeared at the mandatory coroner’s inquest, tearfully recalling her final interactions with Ashley.
“After Coralee learned what happened to Ashley, it fuelled her to prevent this from happening to other families,” Ms. Pate said. “For many families, the stigma might prevent them from speaking out at all. She had the tenacity to stick with it.”
The coroner’s inquest jury deemed the death a homicide and made 104 recommendations, including banning long-term solitary confinement, limiting transfers and placing prisoners with mental-health issues in treatment facilities rather than prisons.
CSC and the Harper government largely disregarded the recommendations, but Justin Trudeau vowed to put them into law when he came to power in 2015. Four years later, Parliament passed a bill that overhauled solitary confinement by mandating that segregated inmates had to be offered at least four hours a day to wander outside their cell, a minimum of two hours of meaningful human contact per day and daily health care visits. The government scrapped the term “segregation” and replaced it with “structured intervention.”
It marked a drastic change in the way CSC operated, but didn’t go nearly far enough for Ms. Cusack-Smith and other justice advocates.
“Segregation by any other name is segregation,” she said. “Segregation is a hellhole. It is inhumane treatment and we really feel it has to have judicial oversight.”
She would write countless letters and op-eds urging for change, and support a number of women released from prison.
In recent years, she had largely retired from prison advocacy, focusing on painting and quilting. She moved in with Ms. Ward and two great-granddaughters, Maria, 7 and Aubree, 4. “They were the absolute loves of her life,” Ms. Ward said. “She loved kids. My whole life I can’t remember a party where my mom wasn’t sitting with the children at the kids’ table. She was always down for a tea party or getting her face painted.”
The grief, along with the prison service’s intransigence, took a toll on her health. In 2010, she had a heart attack requiring quadruple bypass surgery, according to Ms. Ward. Upon further testing, doctors found that she had been suffering from minor cardiac events for years. “She always said she felt them first when Ashley was sent to New Brunswick Youth Centre,” Ms. Ward said. “It was the years and years of eating and breathing the horrors of what happened to Ashley that did it.”
In March, she was diagnosed with an abdominal aneurysm that was at risk of rupturing. Doctors advised her to rest at home while she waited for a May 31 operation. On May 9, she woke up on the family sofa in terrible pain. The family managed to get her to a hospital by ambulance. Ms. Ward and Maria tried to comfort her, singing Church in the Wildwood, a hymn, just as Ms. Cusack-Smith had done when two of her sisters died.
She will be interred at Elmwood Cemetery in Moncton, next to Ashley, beneath a headstone with two hearts, forever entwined.