Charman Smith at a press conference last year via Zoom from Turkey. (Screenshot)

Charman Smith at a press conference last year via Zoom from Turkey. (Screenshot)

OPINION: Yukon woman imprisoned in Turkey deserves better

First Nations woman in dire straights abroad gets scant help from our government

You’ve probably heard of the so-called ‘two Michaels’ who became central to a high-profile dispute between Canada and China after they were detained in 2018. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were convicted of spying in 2021 in closed Chinese courts. Canada said this amounted to arbitrary detention on false charges and eventually secured their release. The two Michaels mattered. You’re less likely to have heard of Charman Smith, a Yukon First Nations woman detained in Turkey two years prior to the Michaels’ arrest, who remains trapped there, far from home and family, abandoned and left to her own devices by a Canadian government that has other priorities.

In 2016, Charman was sentenced to nine years and two months in a Turkish prison for allegedly trafficking khat, a plant grown in Africa with effects similar to drinking a strong coffee. While legal in Kenya, the legality of khat in Turkey seems to depend on circumstances. In Canada, khat is illegal to seek or obtain unless approved by a medical practitioner. Charman says she didn’t know the plant was in her bag as she transferred through Turkey on her way back to Canada from Kenya. She said she left her bags unattended at one point and suspects certain individuals of planting the substance.

I’ve known Charman for some time now. We met while working together at the Westmark Hotel in Whitehorse, Yukon. She has a contagious laugh, and a daughter who she loves and now misses very much. She is a proud member of the Carcross Tagish First Nation. Charman and I have been in touch over the years since she was imprisoned. She was placed on ‘pandemic leave’ in 2020 when the Turkish government emptied some low-security women’s prisons, and is unable to work or leave the country. She said the Canadian government initially lent her money for an apartment and food, and to buy medication to treat her epilepsy. Last year Canada stopped sending the $300 per month and demanded she repay the loan.

“I was no longer going to have a place to stay,” Charman said in a press conference last year via Zoom from Turkey, organized by the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP). “I was no longer going to have food or my medicine… My medication is the most important because I’m an epileptic and if I do not have my medication I can go into multiple seizures.” I know that to be true because when we worked together I witnessed those seizures. I’m amazed Charman has survived until now.

After Canada took away her support, donations from CAP and the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse kept her head above water until her First Nation began supporting her. Canada eventually approved a transfer agreement for Charman but that hasn’t materialized. She remains in limbo, caught up in the Turkish court system.

The issue of the two Michaels came up again in recent criticisms of how the media weighted coverage of residential school graves in Canada compared to other news items. Canadian Press, the country’s national wire agency, allows news clients each year to determine the biggest news story or topic of the year. Certain columnists seem to have taken offence at the two Michaels issue coming in at number four, while the residential schools mass graves ranked first in importance.

The news cycle may pay lip service to the plight of the First Nations in our country, but the Canadian government is very clear what is more important to them. The two Michaels are safely — and proudly — repatriated, while Charman Smith is left stranded in Turkey and in life-threatening circumstances. I’ll bet Charman’s plight didn’t get any newsmaker votes at all.

Let’s be realistic. Guilty or not, Charman was convicted of a crime and Turkey’s sentences are famously draconian. While western democracies have been at odds with China for some time, Turkey is a NATO ally. With that in mind, a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could have a positive impact in Charman’s case. But there’s been not a peep from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who announced the release of the Michaels by China last September. The sad truth is that some lives matter more to our government. This needs to change.


 

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michael.willcock@terracestandard.com

OpinionYukon First Nations