Gabriel Smarch shared his story of a cycle that is far too common in Indigenous communities.
WHITEHORSE—His mother puts the painkillers in the 4-month-old’s milk bottle to stop his crying and make him sleep. And he does — so quietly that she may have forgotten he was even there. She disappears that December night in 1978 and never comes back.
By the time his grandparents find him, the infant is alone, unconscious, the codeine eating through his stomach lining.
The emergency surgery in Edmonton marks the beginning of 39-year-old Gabriel Smarch’s 2,000-page government case history.
The pages tell a story of repeated failures to keep a vulnerable child safe. Throughout his life, Gabriel asked for help, telling social workers, foster parents, nurses and doctors what was happening to him. He was ignored or not believed over and over again.
By the time he says his school principal, a man identified in court documents only as “J.V.”, raped him as an 8-year-old, the trajectory of Gabriel’s life seemed irreversible.
It’s also the story of a victim becoming a violent abuser, a cycle that is far too common in communities like the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse — communities still grappling with the intergenerational trauma of Canada’s colonial violence.
Indigenous children are drastically overrepresented in the foster care and youth justice systems. Nearly 70 per cent of 161 clients that the Yukon Child Advocate’s Office dealt with in 2015-16 are Indigenous, and the vast majority of those are child welfare cases.
“Many of the children we work with are intergenerational survivors of residential schools,” said Annette King, the territory’s child advocate.
Gabriel shared his entire history with Torstar News Service because he wants people to understand the cycles of abuse he was caught up in, and how they continue today.
Gabriel is 6 years old
His family is large. Housing is cramped. The extended family lives sometimes three or four to a room, with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles all underfoot. In the evenings, most of the adults go to bingo, leaving the children in the care of one of the aunts or uncles.
“One night I woke up to pain,” Gabriel recalled, decades later. His shoulders begin to shudder. “It hurt. My uncle was having sex with me. He finished, and I couldn’t stop crying. Stop crying, he said. Everything will be OK.”
As a child, Gabriel doesn’t tell anyone about the sexual abuse but his medical records show he repeatedly told nurses, doctors and social workers he was afraid of being sent home because he said he’d be beaten. He asks to be sent to a foster home, but every time his social workers insist there isn’t enough evidence of abuse to take him into care.
Gabriel is 8 years old
In his short life Gabriel has been to the emergency room 10 times for everything from pneumonia to facial lacerations, a cut from a table saw, two head wounds, and scars that look like they came from cigarette burns, but are later determined to be impetigo, a painful rash that can be caused by poor hygiene.
Records show he is consistently late or absent from school. When he does arrive, he is distracted and irritable, and often caught stealing food from other children. One of his teachers suspects it is because he isn’t being fed at home.
A local doctor is worried. He writes a letter to Gabriel’s social workers accusing them of failing to collect enough evidence to document his mistreatment and take him into permanent care.
“The game we are playing is extremely dangerous,” Dr. Robert Menzies writes. If something isn’t done, Gabriel “could easily be further brutalized, and perhaps maimed or killed.”
In the spring Gabriel and a group of other children are taken to J.V.’s house for a sleepover, according to the lawsuit he would file years later.
Gabriel says he woke up to J.V. raping him.
“They say when you’re molested as a child your innocence is taken from you and it’s replaced with evil,” Gabriel said. “I was replaced with that.”
Despite repeated requests, including phone calls, emails and a hand-delivered letter, J.V. wouldn’t answer the Star’s questions for this story.
Gabriel is 9 years old
He sits in the pickup truck’s cab with his cousin Adrian. The two boys, not yet teenagers, huddle in the night, trying to ward off the cold creeping through their thin cotton sweatshirts.
“We used to do that all the time, run away from the family,” Gabriel recalled. “When they caught us it was always bad. They’d make us cut our own willow branches for them to whip us with.”
A psychological assessment in March 1988 recommends Gabriel be placed in therapeutic foster care for at least a year. He is sent back to live with his family.
“It wasn’t an upbringing,” says Jane McIntyre. “It was an existence he had.”
Jane was a sort of unofficial foster parent to Gabriel many times over the years, but their relationship never had any legal foundation. When things in Gabriel’s life got desperate, she would take him in. Other times he would show up on Jane’s doorstep, with nowhere else to go. He lived off and on with her for years.
Gabriel still visits Jane occasionally, when he needs support. Sitting in her kitchen decades later, he listens quietly as she fixes coffee.
“Those men in his family, they would be drinking,” she says, “and they would hold him up by his shirt with all of them in a ring. They’d tease him and poke him and pull his pants down. He was just a little boy. It was sick.”
Gabriel became friends with some of Jane’s other foster children. With his temporary family, young Gabriel spends weekends cross-country skiing and eating family meals — distractions from his life of anger and pain.
Gabriel is 10 years old
On account of Gabriel’s behaviour problems he is placed in the Above 60 treatment centre, a now-shuttered residential youth facility outside Whitehorse run by Mike Rawlings.
Almost immediately Gabriel starts running away, “escaping” as his psychological evaluation will later describe it.
He goes AWOL 15 times in three months. Each time he’s apprehended he’s returned to Rawlings’s care.
According to his statements to a psychologist in 2016, Gabriel says he was abused sexually and physically at the group home repeatedly, including at least two incidents of anal rape by unidentified staff members.
He tells the psychologist that after one such assault, he sat in the shower crying for hours.
“They’d take away my boots so I couldn’t run away,” he says.
But that doesn’t always stop him. One time Gabriel and a friend hitchhike as far as Vancouver Island. They are discovered by police after sneaking onto the Vancouver Island ferry. Family and Child Services records confirm the incident.
Gabriel’s records from the Justice Department show that when they were apprehended, Gabriel tells the RCMP officer about the alleged abuse at Above 60. He pleads with the officer not to return him there, and not to tell Rawlings.
Instead, social services records show Gabriel is sent back to the home, Rawlings is told everything, and records say no investigation is done. A case worker makes a note to follow up “if the boy makes more accusations of abuse.”
Gabriel is 17 years old
He is arrested for assault and an attempted break-and-enter.
In the six years since he ran away to Vancouver Island, Gabriel has racked up convictions for a previous assault, stealing a car, assault causing bodily harm and possession of stolen property. His case notes from Above 60 say he is “out of control.”
In January 1996 a nurse makes a note on his emergency room intake form that he’s been admitted twice in 24 hours. “The past history on this young man is abysmal for abuse,” the nurse writes.
By this point Gabriel is drinking heavily.
Between April 1, 1996, and June 30, 2012, Gabriel is treated in the emergency room for broken fingers, multiple head injuries, cuts, contusions and damaged ribs, almost all attributed to getting into fights.
Gabriel is 19 years old
Blackout drunk at a party, he’s arrested for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl who was passed out. His arrest record says he had to be dragged off the victim. Gabriel says he woke up in the drunk tank with no memory of the assault, greeted with a pair of handcuffs and a ride to the arrest processing unit at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
He says, and insists to this day, he has no recollection of the assault. He pleads guilty as a way of trying to take responsibility, he says. He’s sentenced to 16 months in jail, and two years of probation.
Though he couldn’t see it at the time, Gabriel’s first lengthy stint in jail will become a turning point.
Almost immediately he starts collecting jailhouse infractions for bad behaviour — mouthing off, fighting, stealing from the kitchen.
But then he meets guard Harvey Reti, a retired infantry soldier and Olympic boxer working at the jail.
Sitting across the kitchen table from his old coach years later, Gabriel recalled their first meeting.
“I was working out in the gym and Harvey just approached me and said, ‘Maybe if you try punching it this way, try moving that way,’ and that was the start of the relationship right there. It bloomed,” Gabriel said.
“We saw a lot of guys like Gabe come through the system,” Harvey said. “When you read part of their past you can start dealing with them rather than just being the boss. You try to be a friend, and a helpful friend.”
Gabriel responded to boxing and to Harvey because they spoke to him in a way that no one had ever tried before. Harvey showed him how to harness his anger.
But aside from hooks and right crosses, Harvey taught Gabriel another lesson. “It takes the bigger man to step back from a fight sometimes,” Harvey said.
After his release, Gabriel starts boxing training with a furious intensity. The heavy smack of knuckles on leather shudders through his apartment building’s thin walls, broadcasting to every tenant the confined fury of the man in unit 5. He starts dressing almost entirely in black: black jeans, black hoodie, black steel-toed boots laced high up his shins like a gladiator’s armoured greaves.
It won’t be the end of his conflict with the law, but along with heavy doses of Tylenol 3s and marijuana, martial arts become a way to help Gabriel keep the monster inside.
Gabriel is 21 years old
Gabriel is released on probation with the condition that he enrol in a sex offender treatment program. Notes from his probation officer, Colleen Geddes, say he is doing well.
Gabriel “seems proud of himself. He is staying sober and learning to control his anger,” Geddes’s notes say.
His first child is born, a son, though it isn’t long before Gabriel and his mother have a falling out. His son goes to live with his maternal grandmother, and Gabriel doesn’t see much of him.
His penchant for minor crimes continues, with a number of arrests for thefts under $5,000 and probation breaches, but his violence and drinking appear largely under control.
In the early hours of Dec. 5, 1999, Gabriel is picked up by the RCMP and brought to the ER after being sexually assaulted by an unknown person in the Kwanlin Dün village.
His clothing is collected for evidence, though no one is ever charged. The hospital conducts an examination with a rape kit and discovers a ragged laceration almost five centimetres long between his legs.
Probation officer Geddes writes in her notes that after the sexual assault Gabriel “took it hard,” and started drinking heavily again.
A month later he’s dragged unconscious from a car by RCMP officers after going off the road and crashing into a telephone pole.
Gabriel is 22 years old
He starts dating Marie Wilcott, and moves in with her and her daughter.
One evening Marie wants to go partying, and leaves Gabriel at home with her daughter. When she comes back late that night, Gabriel is angry. They get into an argument, and Marie tries to leave.
Gabriel chases her into the street. He pulls her by her hair, screaming, back inside the kitchen. Her daughter is hiding in the next room.
The police are called. They find Gabriel in the basement, trying to hide in a clothes dryer. He is charged with assault and uttering threats.
After the assault Marie leaves Whitehorse with her daughter and moves to Vancouver. Like too many Indigenous women fleeing violence, mother and daughter are homeless for a while until Marie gets back on her feet. Now she helps teach colonial history and the legacies of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people to outreach workers in the Downtown East Side.
Meanwhile case notes from the Whitehorse jail say Gabriel is a “high risk for suicide.” He’s placed in solitary confinement.
A case note from April 24, 2001, written by an unidentified jail employee, says Gabriel is asking repeatedly for gym time.
“He asked to see me in my office and before I could ask what he wanted he burst into tears. I ended up spending an hour and a half with him between the yard and my office, and most of that time he cried,” the note says.
Gabriel is 33 years old
A case note from his probation officer in 2004 hints Gabriel may be getting paid to fight in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches.
His health records from 2005 say he’s brought unresponsive to the hospital by ambulance, eyes rolling back in his head. He’d been in a fight the previous day, and was kicked multiple times in the head. He tells doctors he collapsed in the shower.
He has two more children, daughters with two mothers, but is only peripherally involved in their lives.
His criminal record continues to grow. He’s arrested and charged multiple times for assaulting another girlfriend, and rotates in and out of jail.
In 2008 he arrives, yet again, at the hospital emergency room. He claims he was beaten up by the RCMP while in custody. “Smashed head against cement wall, dragged across floor, slammed head into floor,” the intake record says.
Notes from his probation officer say he was brought in on an outstanding warrant and was “resisting arrest.”
During this time Gabriel’s probation officer convinces him to start seeing a counsellor, Joseph Graham. Over time, Gabriel tells Graham the full extent of the sexual abuse he’s suffered. It’s one of the first times Gabriel names the thing that’s torturing him.
After the sessions with Graham, Gabriel decides to do two things: charge his uncle with sexual assault, and sue the Yukon government over what he says J.V. and Above 60 did to him.
Gabriel is 35 years old
On the morning of his uncle’s trial, Gabriel dresses in white track pants and sneakers. His armour — the heavy rings, steel-toed boots, black hoodie — is gone. Pinned to his sleeve is a tiny metal cross. He stands in his apartment, staring out the window, not speaking. Tupac Shakur’s “The Way It Is” blasts from the stereo, shaking the thin windowpanes.
On the stand, exposed, Gabriel struggles to maintain his composure, especially under cross-examination. He bristles at every question from his uncle’s defence lawyer. He argues with the judge. As soon as his testimony is finished, he stands and bolts from the courtroom.
In the witness room, behind closed doors, he presses his fists into his eyes.
“There are no more words for this,” he tells a court support worker, his shoulders shaking. “I’ve used them all up.”
Tears stream down Gabriel’s face, landing on the black T-shirt stretched tight across his chest.
There is a knock at the door. The court sheriff pokes his head in to let Gabriel know that his uncle and family has gone. Gabriel walks out of the courthouse and into the spring sunshine. He strides three blocks to a nearby church, checks his pockets for change for the donation jar, and walks inside.
The rows of pews are empty, silent. Gabriel tiptoes towards the altar. He crosses himself, kneels and clasps his hands together.
“Thank you, Lord, for giving me the strength …” he begins, his voice trailing off to a murmur. For 15 minutes he stays almost motionless, head bowed.
“I prayed for my uncle,” he says, back outside the church. “I prayed for his forgiveness and for the family. I prayed for forgiveness, too, for all the people I hurt, and for the family, all of them. You have to. God will judge all of us one day.”
A week passes.
“Hey, brother,” Gabriel says, looking up to the sky and waving. At the sound, the eagle dips its wings and scans the man in black, walking along the road beside McIntyre Creek.
It’s a good omen, Gabriel says. Eagles always are. That’s why Gabriel comes here, to this little strip of marshland wedged into a canyon just off the Alaska Highway. There are eagles everywhere, often a half-dozen at a time. Coming here is a ritual Gabriel has been practising since childhood in one of the only places he feels calm.
Gabriel doesn’t know it yet, but the case against his uncle is about to be thrown out. Gabriel urges a potential witness to come to court and back up his story. He loses his temper when the witness says no.
The Crown decides to withdraw its case.
Walking beneath the eagles in the canyon, unburdened by that knowledge, Gabriel says he can feel the crushing weight of his past lifted away on the winds.
“It feels like the freedom I didn’t get, the happiness, the peacefulness,” he says. “Where no one could f—ing touch you or punch you or lock you behind some f—ing door.”
It’s been more than two years since Gabriel first came forward about his uncle, two years since his family threw him out and disowned him for it, he says. Gabriel figures they were afraid of being tainted by the shame he says he wanted to expose.
“I wanted to be ordinary, like every other kid. I wanted to finish school, do good things, have my own house and a vehicle for my kids. But it was never like that,” he says. “It’s still not like that.”
Days later Gabriel’s probation officer finally gives him the news that his uncle was not convicted.
He starts drinking again. Weeks pass. Gabriel is nowhere to be seen. Loud music reverberates from inside his apartment, but there’s no answer to a knock at the door.
At 6 a.m. one morning, a reporter’s phone rings. Gabriel is on the other end of the line. “Hey. What’s goin’ on?” he says, his customary greeting. He sounds dopey and confused.
An hour later, Gabriel stumps down the stairs from his apartment. He sways, and crashes into the doorframe. Fresh, red scars run down his arms. His knuckles are ravaged and evidence of a fight is written across his face. He winces and holds his sides. He thinks his ribs might be broken.
He got jumped, he says, by a couple guys from the Kwanlin Dün village. There was a baseball bat, he says. There were boots.
He won’t say exactly what happened, who started the fight or why.
“This place is death, man,” he says. “It’s f—ing evil. I need to get out of here.”
Gabriel is 36 years old
He is leaning against a hotel room windowsill, staring out at the neon night. Vancouver’s Granville St. and the entertainment district stretch out before him. It’s early evening, but university students are already starting to fill the bar-lined street.
In the morning, he’ll see Marie Wilcott, the woman he assaulted, for the first time in more than a decade.
After his uncle’s trial, word reached Marie in Vancouver. She says she knew Gabriel’s early life had been hard, but she had no idea how hard.
“It totally broke my heart,” she says.
Despite their violent history, she decided to reach out.
A friend at the Kwanlin Dün First Nation offices told Gabriel about a college program in Vancouver. It’s a course in auto mechanics, and it’s designed specifically for older Indigenous students like Gabriel.
Gabriel flies to the city to visit Marie.
On the SkyTrain from the airport, Gabriel stares out the window, arms clasped tight around his chest. He spends most of the day walking around Vancouver, staring up at the skyscrapers but saying little. Finally, he’s standing outside the downtown Shoppers Drug Mart, the appointed meeting place, but at first he won’t go in. Finally, he steps forward as the automatic doors open.
Marie is standing inside, waiting. When she sees him, her face is unreadable. Gabriel waves faintly. Marie walks forward, her high-heeled boots rapping on the shopping mall floor. By the time they meet, Gabriel is laughing and Marie is smiling broadly. She links her arm through his and leads him back out to the parking lot.
They climb into her van and drive, winding through the city but not really seeing it, lost in talk. She drops Gabriel at Vancouver Community College for his meeting. The head of admissions tells him he needs to get his high school diploma and improve some grades. Gabriel gets a tour of the auto mechanic shop. He shakes hands with the head instructor, and walks out smiling.
The day ends at Jericho Beach, as the sun is setting over the city skyline. Marie and Gabriel walk along the sand. Gabriel pulls a joint from his pocket and walks alone towards a breakwater. Marie watches him go.
“I don’t think honestly in my heart that his family ever wanted to treat him like that,” she says.
“But that’s what was learned. That’s what was taught through residential schools. Now we have generations of people in their 20s and 30s struggling and wondering why this happened to me.
“Will Gabriel ever get why that happened? That’s huge stuff. Who knows if that ever happens?” she says.
She pauses, watching Gabriel standing alone and staring out across the water.
“There’s no timeline on this. All I can say is pure patience. Pure understanding of what’s going on. Aboriginal people are speaking up about this now, and we’re doing it slowly. It took 200 years to do us wrong. It’s going to take 200 years to get better.”
The ocean laps softly at the beach. Seagulls wheel in the sky.
“I want Gabriel to find some peace,” she says, finally. “Find happiness. There is happiness in him. There is a good guy in there that deserves to live a good life.”
Present day. Gabriel is 39 years old
After speaking with the admissions staff at Vancouver Community College, Gabriel returns to Whitehorse, enrols in classes at Yukon College and, though it is occasionally a struggle, earns his high school diploma.
He starts spending more time with his children, going on shopping trips with his daughter and driving his son to school each day.
Things appear to be improving for him, but as potential trial dates for his lawsuit over J.V.’s alleged abuse are set and rescheduled repeatedly, his anxiety begins to rise.
He’s arrested for assault, and ends up back inside the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. While he’s unable to collect his social assistance cheques, the rent on his government subsidized apartment goes unpaid. When he is released on bail he finds an eviction notice taped to his door.
He gets into another fight — jumped again, he says, by three guys. He fights them off, smashing one in the head with a rock and spattering blood across his car’s windshield.
The RCMP issues another warrant for Gabriel’s arrest. He ends up living in his car for three months until the social assistance office gets the paperwork on his apartment sorted out. Eventually he turns himself in to the police, and is charged and released on recognizance pending another trial date.
The Yukon government puts a settlement offer on the table in his lawsuit against J.V. Gabriel rejects it, but when the government says it will put him on the stand in open court, and use his lengthy criminal history against him, he signs a settlement offer. He gets $19,000 in exchange for dropping the allegations about Above 60 entirely. The settlement includes no admission of wrongdoing by the government or J.V.
Most of the money goes to pay off debts that Gabriel has accumulated over the past few years. In no time he has only a few thousand dollars left.
In August 2017, Gabriel says his social assistance is cut off because his settlement money means he no longer qualifies. His toilet is broken. The heat doesn’t work.
“I shouldn’t have to use that settlement money,” he says.
“I nearly died for that money, and what did it get me?” he asks, looking around at the pockmarked walls of his apartment. “This? Is this what it got me?”