A First Nations woman from Yukon charged with drug trafficking in Turkey has returned home after being detained there for seven years.
Charman Smith, a Carcross/Tagish First Nation citizen, was greeted by loved ones at the Whitehorse airport on Thursday night.
“(I’m) so happy,” she tearfully told reporters shortly after her arrival.
“I left Istanbul this morning in tears, left Germany, left Vancouver, now I’m home.”
Friend Leslie Cawley said Smith is a kind and generous person and that her return is welcomed by many.
“She’s been away from her family and friends for all these years and I wanted to be here to welcome her home because being away from your homeland, First Nation, to have people greet you and to bring a new beginning for her was important for me,” she said.
“She’s gone through a teaching that none of us can imagine…We need (her) to know that she’s so loved and she was so missed. It was hard for everybody.”
Smith told APTN News in an interview last year that in 2016, a friend offered to send her in their place to an employment conference in Africa under the guise that they were unable to go.
While travelling back to Canada, Smith was apprehended by airport officials during a layover in Turkey.
Smith claims unbeknownst to her, Khat, a stimulant that is illegal in Turkey, had been packed into her luggage.
Though Smith has always maintained she had never heard of the plant prior to her arrest and had no knowledge of how it came to be in her possession, she was ultimately sentenced to nine years and two months for drug trafficking.
“What happened was I said yes to helping a friend, who I thought was a friend, I wanted to help that person,” she told reporters.
“It’s been seven years, one week today since I have been back home, because of somebody else’s selfishness, using me.”
In 2020, Smith was released on a form of house arrest after she said the Turkish government freed a number of female prisoners due to COVID-19 concerns. She was then put on probation last year.
She said the ordeal had been devastating for her mental health and her family.
“It took me away from my family, my friends, my culture, my loved ones, and it was just because of one decision,” she said.
‘The Canadian government abandoned her’
Smith’s situation was further complicated in 2021 when she claimed the Canadian government asked her to repay the money it had been sending her after she had been released from prison.
Smith claimed that Canada, which had been lending her $300 per month to rent a modest apartment and buy food and medication to treat her epilepsy, stopped sending her money and asked her to repay the loan.
At the time, Smith was suffering from a retention cyst in her brain which she feared could be fatal.
The situation led Smith’s First Nation to step in and finically support her for the remainder of her detainment.
Kim Beaudin, vice-president of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), which has been advocating for Smith in recent years, said Canada failed to help a First Nations woman in dire circumstances.
“The Canadian government (abandoned) her really, leaving her by herself to navigate a foreign country with a different language,” he said.
“I was worried that she’d end up back in Canada in a coffin as opposed to, you know, meeting her family and meeting her friends.”
Concerned about her welfare, CAP sent numerous letters and petitions to Global Affairs in an effort for Smith serve the remainder of her sentence in Canada through a prisoner transfer agreement.
But an agreement never materialized before Smith’s release date, leaving her stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare.
Beaudin said the lack of support for Smith from federal officials is appalling.
“I just felt that they could have done a lot more, and as time went on…they just didn’t.”
Beaudin compared Smith’s ordeal to the two Michaels, a case where the Canadian government made significant efforts to repatriate Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from China after they were arrested and detained over allegations of being spies.
While top federal officials like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrated the two Michaels’s return, Beaudin said there’s been far less fanfare for Smith.
“Canada didn’t do any of that (for her),” Beaudin said. “I would not wish this upon anybody in any country.”
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Beaudin said he plans to travel to Yukon in the coming months to meet with Smith and learn more about her experience while she was detained.
He said he’s ultimately pleased she is back home with her loved ones.
“I’m really happy for her. It’s been a very, very long journey.”
While Smith said she’ll miss her friends from Turkey, she’s eager to reconnect with her loved ones, especially her daughter and granddaughter.
“This year I’ll be meeting my granddaughter (for the first time), hopefully being able to kidnap her for the summer. I can’t wait.”
Smith said now that her journey home is over, her next journey will be focused on healing.
“I need to be able to recover from this. I need to be able to be able to take time.”