Ashley Smith inquest: former warden avoids testifying

Brinda Wilson-Demuth, the warden of Grand Valley Institution when Ashley Smith arrived there in 2007, was supposed to be on the stand all day to answer questions about her directives regarding Smith's treatment, but was spared because of health concerns.

Lawyers opt not to call Brinda Wilson-Demuth, now on sick leave from corrections job

Ashley Smith, 19, choked to death in October 2007 at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont. She had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards, who were ordered not to intervene, stood outside her cell door. An inquest into the teen's death is being held in Toronto. (The Canadian Press)

Brinda Wilson-Demuth, the warden of Grand Valley Institution when Ashley Smith arrived there in 2007, was supposed to be on the stand all day Tuesday to answer questions regarding the New Brunswick teenager's treatment under her watch.

Smith, whose October 2007 death at the facility is the subject of an ongoing inquiry in Toronto, had a history of tying ligatures around her neck, prompting staff to enter her cell and remove them. 

Previous witnesses have testified that Wilson-Demuth had ordered staff to alter reports on those incidents to avoid ongoing scrutiny from senior corrections officials at regional and national headquarters.

Staff also testified they were ordered not to enter Smith’s cell as long as she was breathing.

Lawyers for the coroner and other parties with standing at the inquest had planned to question Wilson-Demuth about this, but the former warden arrived at court Tuesday prepared to testify only on a limited basis. 

Sources say her doctor advised her that her health was fragile and that she should not be subjected to the stress of cross-examination. 

Lawyers for the other parties, including the Smith family, instead decided not to have her testify at all, calling for documented evidence — such as emails to other staff — to be entered into the court record.

(Courtesy of Smith family)
Wilson-Demuth was warden at Grand Valley early in 2007 but was then promoted to director general for all women’s prisons in Canada, in Ottawa. She is now on medical leave. 

Smith, 19, choked to death in October 2007 at the Kitchener, Ont. facility. She had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards stood outside her cell door and watched.

Earlier this week, jurors at the inquest heard from Nicki Smith, who was the acting deputy warden at Grand Valley during the early days of Ashley Smith's (no relation) incarceration. She is now the prison’s deputy warden.

She repeatedly told the inquest she had no recollection of any directive given to staff not to enter Smith's cell unless she stopped breathing. 

“I’m saying while I was acting deputy warden, there was no change in orders,” she testified. “No one said you can’t go in. No one stopped them in my reign.”

She also claimed she didn’t remember staff informing her of any problems with how to handle Smith.

She was pressed further under cross-examination about her recollections.

“Once you hit your late 50s or 60s, your memory diminishes significantly,” she said. “I think I am in that category.”

Later, Smith was questioned by a juror who asked, with the benefit of hindsight, what would she do differently now, nearly six years after Ashley Smith’s death.

“I don’t know that we would do anything differently,” she replied.

Later, as Smith concluded her time on the stand, the coroner, Dr. John Carlisle, addressed the deputy warden directly. ”I honestly see a set of blinders here,” he said. 

“You were the senior official who was supposed to know what was going on here.”

The inquest continues Wednesday when former Deputy Warden Joanna Pauline is scheduled to testify.


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