An act of institutional femicide: remembering the life of Michele M

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Three roses on a memorial. Image: Pablo Viojo/Flickr

Content warning: suicide, violence

The last three weeks of 58-year-old single mother and abuse survivor Michele M's life were spent on the run from a multi-generational history of male violence against women and children.

Despite having saved herself and her children nine years ago from an abusive ex-spouse, Michele was treated as a serious criminal by a Canadian state that, despite white ribbons and feminist window dressing, refused to acknowledge and believe the well-established history of abuse she and her children had suffered. 

While it was reported that Michele took her own life the evening of November 5 at the notorious Leclerc prison, it would be more accurate to conclude that her life had been stolen from her long ago by male abusers, police, judges, social services agents, media, and a system that refuses to believe or understand the reality of male violence against women. While Michele had tried with the greatest of dignity to win back piece after piece of her life through the years, she tragically ran out of hope three weeks after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear her appeal for a second time.

A former U.S. resident, Michele had been sought since 2010 for extradition from Canada to the state of Georgia to face trial for the alleged crime of interstate interference with custody. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear her case in October was the final leg of a nine-year legal odyssey that required Michele, as part of her bail conditions, to turn herself in to custody each time a court was about to pronounce on her fate.

But by this fall, Michele had had enough of prison. Since 2010, she'd been jailed at various times for periods up to six months, and forced to live under a house arrest regime that kept her cooped up for 23 hours a day in a modest Lac-Mégantic apartment.

Rather than report for custody last month, she went on the run from a forced return to the state of Georgia where, like every other U.S. jurisdiction, "domestic violence survivors have been criminalized, prosecuted, and imprisoned for acts carried out by their abusive partners. Often, these were actions that they either knew nothing about or were powerless to stop. But at trial, their experiences of abuse are often downplayed or outright dismissed."

In the end, the RCMP tracked her down and arrested her in Quebec after Michele spent two weeks resisting surrender to prison. Her life ended four days later.

Breaking the cycle of violence

In 2010, Michele (long known as MM in her court history), while living in the state of Georgia, had sought to break the cycle of violence plaguing her life by rescuing herself and her kids (then aged 14, 11 and 9) from an abusive father and fleeing to Quebec for their collective safety (all were joint U.S.-Canadian citizens). On that score, she was ultimately successful. She saved their lives. All three children are now adults, Canadian citizens who, almost a decade ago, were sleeping in an abandoned Georgia garage to escape their father's abuse.

Despite doing what any loving parent would do, Michele was sought for extradition by the United States -- at the behest of her vengeful ex-husband -- for alleged interstate interference in child custody. That her abusive ex-spouse had previously been awarded custody of the children despite his record of violence was depressingly unsurprising for, as Salon reports:

"In family courts throughout the [U.S.], evidence that one of the parents is sexually or physically abusing a child is routinely rejected. Instead, perpetrators of abuse are often entrusted with unsupervised visits or joint or sole custody of the children they abuse, putting children in danger of serious, often life-threatening harm, according to children's advocates."

Originally arrested by the RCMP two days before Christmas 2010 while staying in a Quebec women's shelter, Michele spent the following six months awaiting bail behind bars, and an additional eight years fighting a case that should have been dismissed as being without merit long ago.

When asked in a 2011 court hearing why she had gone into a Quebec women's shelter upon her arrival north of the border, Michele replied: "Because I had been beaten by him for the last final time."

The first year back in Quebec was difficult, she told me a few years ago, but "from a jailhouse with zero resources, I pulled from any place I could to make sure those children were not sent back to their abuser, and even the children said, 'we're not going back, we'll take foster care here.'"

Michele's final weeks

This past October, Michele received her customary command to report to prison to await the Supreme Court's decision on whether they would hear her case. Michele always had to turn herself in to prison authorities to await the outcome of court deliberations at various stages in her case, after which she would return on bail to her house arrest. But this time felt different. From the moment that chilling message to report to jail arrived, Michele was scrambling to get her affairs in order, to arrange long-term care for her mother (suffering with Alzheimer's), and figure out her next move. She was clear with me that she could not face the humiliation of entering prison doors anymore in her life. The degrading conditions, the humiliating strip searches, the incessantly petty violence of prison routine were too much for her, especially after a traumatizing stay behind bars in the spring awaiting a decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal.

"Why, why, why why, why do they keep doing this to me?" she would plead with me. "Why isn't he in jail?" she asked, referencing the abusive ex-spouse who had repeatedly told the children that his goal was to see Michele either jailed for life or six feet under. Much as she feared more jail and more courts, she ultimately feared seeing him again. Hearing that voice, seeing the rage-filled face, would reopen all the traumas she tried to overcome through a disposition best described by her Facebook moniker, Sunshine.

I last spoke with Michele the day before she was discovered without vital signs in her jail cell. She had been arrested the previous Friday after a frantic two-week journey. She had refused to report to prison, and an arrest warrant went out for her.

Once on the run, she'd purchased a burner phone to avoid detection and paid cash for her necessities. We discussed her limited options, and her dream that the decade-old case -- so old it was packed away in the archives of the Cobb County District Attorney's office -- would be too much trouble to unpack and revisit. She kept telling me, again and again, as if doing so would make it true, that she just could not go back to Georgia.

Having known and worked with Michele for almost five years, I knew she was strong, inventive, and determined. She had, after all, saved her children's lives. When she had been in jail facing forced removal to Georgia in December 2015 -- after the Supreme Court rejected her first appeal in a narrow 4-3 loss -- she went on 12-day hunger strike as we mobilized a national effort to force reconsideration of her case by the then new justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould. Five years to the day that she'd been arrested in the women's shelter -- December 23, 2015 -- we won a stunning reprieve.

But this time around, four years later, Michele's voice was different, as if a fire were slowly going out. Some days she'd call and ask what I thought about her walking across the border and taking a bus to Georgia and turning herself in there. There was something so galling to her about the humiliation of being picked up by U.S. marshals and being led away in chains from her birth country of Canada, whose government had clearly betrayed her.

At times, the calls were intensely difficult, as she described two separate, unsuccessful suicide attempts that, she said, proved to her that "God wasn't ready to take me yet." Michele often said that she'd heard and believed a celestial voice speaking to her while she tried to sleep in her various prison cells. "Don't go back to Georgia," the voices were telling her. "You shouldn't be extradited."

The pain of extradition

I have often worked as a community advocate in cases of extradition, a stunningly unfair process by which anyone living in Canada can lose all of their charter-guaranteed due process rights when a foreign state issues a request for their arrest and forced removal, no matter how flimsy the case. In trying to meet the challenge of these impossible cases, I got to know and work with Michele.

The injustice of her situation was clearly part of a pattern I had personally witnessed in my own work. I'd seen cases where refugees' protected person status in Canada was overturned based on an extradition request by the country from whose persecution they had fled. There was the case of an African-American man who 35 years earlier had defended himself against a racist and potentially lethal police attack on the streets of Chicago. Despite the clear conflict of interest, that same cop who perpetrated the racist attack pursued the case as both the alleged victim and the investigating officer. Canada accepted the request despite the destruction of evidence, the deaths of witnesses, and major inconsistencies in the file.

And then there was what is one of the most high-profile extradition cases in Canada, the still ongoing saga of Dr. Hassan Diab. Sought by a country, France, which refuses to extradite its own citizens, Diab spent three years in a French prison, without charge. This despite the fact that he did not share the finger and palm prints or the physical description of the original suspect in a 1980 crime. Diab was also the subject of secret intelligence that, his lawyers argued, was "based largely on intelligence reports from unnamed foreign entities, who in turn obtained information from unknown sources in unknown circumstances." Notably, malfeasance by officials in the Canadian Justice Department only prolonged Dr. Diab's nightmare, and no one has been held to account.

Like Michele, Dr. Diab was subjected to years of severe bail restrictions, which in his case included an ankle-monitoring bracelet for which he had to foot the $2,000 monthly bill.

This is the type of judicially sanctioned political persecution that ruins the lives of individuals and their families. Those sought for extradition learn quickly there is little hope. As Manitoba Queen's Bench Justice Freda Steel concluded in a 1999 extradition case, "evidence at an extradition hearing should be accepted even if the judge feels it is manifestly unreliable, incomplete, false, misleading, contradictory of other evidence or the judge feels the witness may have perjured themselves."

Indeed, Steel quotes a fellow judge as noting that questioning the validity of a requesting state's often paper-thin, fabricated, perjured, misleading, or contradictory evidence "conveys a reflection of the gravest possible kind, not only upon the motives and actions of the responsible government, but also impliedly upon the judicial authorities of a neighbouring and friendly power."

It is against this background that Michele knew the cards were stacked against her. But she also shared a perverse hope. She actually believed (and who wouldn't want to?) that if only the right people looked at the case file -- the documentation of abuse, the testimony of the fearful children, the evaluation from children's services that the father was not safe to be around, the history of abuse against her -- that someone would believe her. Yet even at Canada's highest judicial level, judges were asking the usual questions that women survivors of male violence always get asked: why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do that?

Insults at the Supreme Court

I was sitting behind Michele and three of her kids during her 2015 Supreme Court hearing, and saw her back visibly stiffen when Justice Michael Moldaver betrayed his own lack of understanding of the dynamics of male violence against women and children. He knew that, in Michele's case, the children were not taken from the father's home, but rather had escaped and sought their mother's assistance. Michele had argued that because the children were in danger and everything else she had tried to protect them had proven unsuccessful, a trip to Canada was the only option.

"She didn't take the children from the father at the house in terms of him having possession," Moldaver declared. "She took them [after] they'd already left. Where's the imminent harm? I'm just kinda missing that. Imminent harm's gotta mean something." Had one of the allegedly most learned judges in the land not looked at the court record, which included the report from Quebec's director of youth protection? The director of youth protection accepted the conclusion of child and family services in Georgia that they could not confirm that "the children will be safe from abuse if taken back to Georgia." Sounds a lot like imminent harm. The learned judge also seems to have overlooked in the court record the very explicit details of the beatings the children had run away from, the father's imprisoning of the children in a locked basement, and the children's own statements that they were fearful of their father.

But as advocates working to end male violence against women see every day, such facts magically disappear in cases where misogyny's logical results come before a judicial setting. (Anyone who still doubts how unsafe calling the cops and going to court are for women survivors should read Elizabeth Sheehy's Defending Battered Women on Trial and Elaine Craig's Putting Trials on Trial: Sexual Assault and the Failure of the Legal Profession.)

Indeed, Moldaver later asked the "why didn't she go to police" question with a Don Cherry-esque air of exasperation. "There were all kinds of other options available at that point other than escaping to Canada," Moldaver opined, referencing an incident in which Georgia police had stopped Michele and the children for an alleged DUI incident (for which Michele was never charged). Moldaver demands: "What better opportunity to say 'by the way officer, my children are in imminent harm. Please do something?'"

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin also questioned Michele's lawyer along similar lines, noting:

"It is suggested in some of the material of the [government] that she should have just gone to court or done something like that if your children are in trouble with their custodial parent. This is what we encourage citizens to do in our country. What do you say to that?"

Michele was no stranger to having dealt with the Georgia police and courts. She spoke often of their corruption, their collusion with abusers, and their dismissive attitude when it was obvious who was the target of abuse. Indeed, desperately afraid of what awaited her in Georgia -- "they cannot extradite a corpse," she told me a few days before her life ended -- Michele knew with certainty in her soul that she would not receive a fair trial, would be housed indefinitely in a private, for-profit prison, and would serve long years for an alleged offence that provided her no proper defence in Georgia.

Wilson-Raybould adds insult to injury

Michele was not alone in her fears. Three justices of the Supreme Court of Canada (all women) agreed with her when they delivered a dissenting opinion on her case in 2015. Justice Rosalie Abella pointed out that "the defence of rescuing children to protect them from imminent harm does not exist in Georgia [and] the mother will not be able to raise the defence she would have been able to raise had she been prosecuted in Canada." This contradiction violates a cornerstone of extradition law, the "double criminality" requirement that the Supreme Court acknowledges is a process that ensures Canada is "not embarrassed by an obligation to extradite a person who would not, according to its own standards, be guilty of acts deserving punishment."

Unfortunately, the court's three male members -- supported by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin -- voted against her in a decision the dissenters called "kafkasesque," a rare public rebuke.

When Michele won her Christmas reprieve in 2015, we felt strongly that putting forward new information to Wilson-Raybould -- including an expert legal opinion that reminded the Justice Department's legal staff once again that there was no defence available to Michele in Georgia -- would turn the tide. But it was not to be so. Seven months later, Wilson-Raybould signed the surrender order, what eventually proved to be a death writ for Michele.

Wilson-Raybould 's arguments defending the surrender order could have been written by an angry men's rights activist. In one particularly insulting section, the justice minister wrote with the dismissive language that has been heard by countless abuse survivors:

"In my view, even applying the most generous modified objective standard to the situation that takes into account Ms. Messina's claimed background as an abused spouse, it cannot be said that she was of the opinion that at the time that the children were at risk of 'imminent harm.'"

Wilson-Raybould criticized Michele for not allegedly providing "any reasons for not contacting the police or child and family services on behalf of her children regarding her concerns about her children's well-being." Wilson-Raybould continued by claiming Michele "had adequate opportunity to contact the authorities and it cannot be said that there were no legal alternatives such that she was left with no choice but to take the children to Canada."

The former justice minister also seemed more concerned about the abusive father that the children clearly did not want to see. In one stunning sentence, Wilson-Raybould complained that in her view, Michele had "deprived" the abusive father "of the reasonable opportunity to visit his children." Clearly, Wilson-Raybould took no account of the director of youth protection report that showed that in one 2011 interview with the father, "at no time did the father call the children by their names. It was the 'girls' or the 'boy.' He did not express that he loved the children and wanted them to return home."

Wilson-Raybould also downplayed the well-documented violence the children and Michele had experienced by conceding she recognized that "the children's accounts of their relationship with their father are less than positive." She also downplayed the violence with the implication that it could not have been that bad given that the children did not complain to a high school counselor about the abuse and that they attended school regularly. (What high school student shares anything with an over-worked school counselor, knowing that it could result in a phone call home and retaliatory violence from an abuser?)

The painful conclusion of Wilson-Raybould was that "it cannot be said that the harm that [Michele] was attempting to avoid was proportionate to the harm that she caused her children."

During last winter's SNC-Lavalin scandal revelations, one could forgive Michele for agreeing that Wilson-Raybould was not the fount of integrity and justice that everyone made her out to be.

Trying to move on

Michele's children, her mother, and her friends, are all still trying to deal with the shock of what has happened. In follow-up conversations with those who knew and loved her -- and those who knew her dearly did love her -- it was clear to me that everyone was in a state of disbelief that Canada's judicial system had reached such a point that it would expend such vast resources to ensnare and throw away a mother who saved her kids.

When Michele's life ended in early November, it was widely known by inmates and staff at the brutal Leclerc prison that this was a preventable suicide; the jail staff and inmates all knew when she entered that she was suicidal. While investigations are likely to follow, it does not appear from this angle that necessary precautions were taken.

Michele's final, desperate act might be more accurately described as the result of a years-long, slow-drip act of institutional femicide. Her loss shines a light on so many pressing social issues that continue to be swept aside, including a compelling need to undertake serious reforms to the Extradition Act that would bring it in line with domestic and international human rights standards. Dr. Hassan Diab -- Michele had often prayed for him and followed his case -- had called for a public inquiry that would point the direction forward, but that was rejected by Wilson-Raybould in favour of a severely limited review that led to a complete and total whitewash.

When she was in jail, Michele often spoke about the women she met there, many of whom were Indigenous and/or being held on immigration holds. They all shared stories of being separated from loved ones. As an older inmate, Michele was often seen as the motherly aunt figure to whom many would go with their problems, their fears, and their tears.

Michele's life and death also screams out for the desperate need to develop and implement a United Nations-mandated National Action Plan to End Violence Against Women and Girls. In February 2015, Women's Shelters Canada launched A Blueprint for Canada's National Action Plan (NAP) on Violence against Women (VAW). As of today, there is still no such action plan (but rather only a very skeletal proposal from a Trudeau government that seems unwilling to properly prioritize this national crisis.) It also reminds us that the largest percentage of women behind bars in this country are Indigenous, and that there needs to be immediate action on the call from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls for the creation of a national plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQI+ people.

She sometimes spoke about one day becoming a paralegal to help women in her shoes. She also said that one of the worst things about being in jail was being away from her beloved flowers.

As I made the painful round of calls two weeks ago to let friends and family know of this outcome, one longtime friend from Georgia sighed on the other end of the line. "We can't let her story be left untold," she said.

With that in mind, a public memorial will take place at the front entrance to the Justice Department in Ottawa at noon on Monday, November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Called "Roses for Michele," this memorial will place the flowers that she loved at the foot of the building where such horrible decisions were made. It will be followed later in the week by a group in Montreal gathering to honour Michele's life by writing to prisoners still left behind in Leclerc prison.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. "national security" profiling for many years.

Image: Pablo Viojo/Flickr

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