Interview with Erika Tafel, Author of Slave to the Farm
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
As I do research for my current book, I've been interviewing some old friends along with some new. A few days ago I had a wonderful interview with Erika Tafel, the author of Slave to the Farm. I'm doing research on the youth protection system in and around Montreal, as my current book is based on my experience and those of friends as 'wards of the court' in youth protection during the 80s & 90s. If you haven't read Erika's book yet, it's a must read. Many injustices have been served by the Quebec government in the name of 'youth protection' and Erika tells the story well.
Although Erika and I were not in the system at the same time and had never met while there, we share a lot of the same reasons for being there. A hugely significant difference in our story is that she was unlucky enough to be sentenced to units that were created as detention centres (Le Village and Shawbridge), whereas as I was sent to a shelter and then a group home in the city.
Erika and I were both admitted into the system because of rebellious behaviour and because we were labelled as runaways. Neither of us had criminal records, we had both been victims of sexual assault at a young age (which, in my case anyway, was an instigator for much of my rebelling and stressful home environment), and we'd both been expelled from high school. For some reason, whoever got her case at social services decided she needed to be contained behind bars, while whoever got mine decided to put me in a shelter and give me a chance to prove myself (with a threat of detention at Shawbridge hanging over my head if I didn't). Neither of us received any form of psychological counselling while we were in the system, nor did the system prepare us for independence upon aging out of youth protection. Both of us suffered emotionally and feel we are lucky to be alive today.
In Slave to the Farm, Erika describes how disciplinary methods used in the detention centres created a whole new level of emotional stress. Disciplinary measures included a 3 day isolation program upon arrival in the unit, where a kid would stay in their room without contact with others, no cigarette breaks, and even eat their meals in their room. Kids were also subjected to several days in solitary confinement for breaking the rules. A solitary confinement room contained only a mattress. And privileges were often revoked for rather subjective reasons, such as disagreeing with a childcare worker.
Erika discusses the problems with mixing kids with criminal records with those who were simply there because they were runaways - which commonly occurred in detention centres. She tells of a terrifying experience sharing a room, and being locked in every night, with a very troubled girl who had been convicted of murder. This is a story I've heard before from other friends who were detained at Le Village detention centre, which was often used as a stopover before being placed in a more permanent Shawbridge unit. Girls in Le Village could be there for months though, before finally moving to a unit that suited their level of criminality or lack thereof. And placements were often far from perfect, as they also depended on available beds.
Although kids placed in the system were subjected to various levels of emotional trauma, Erika also points to the bonds made between kids and the fond memories that were forged along the way. This I relate to well, as one of my closest friends is a girl I met on my first day in the system. And I could tell you so many stories about the trouble we all got into - but you'll have to wait for my book!
For those who've read my first published novel, Sky-Bound Misfit, my current novel is about Sam (the first friend Frankie makes at Beats High). While Frankie's story reflects my experiences with gender violence as a young teen, Sam's story will reflect my experiences in the system as an older teen. I felt Sam needed a book of her own.
The first 6 chapters of Sky-Bound Misfit can be read here: https://www.janepowell.org/post/read-chapters-1-6
Thank you Erika for our great chat 😊 Another bond has been forged 💞
Visit Erika Tafel's website for more information on Slave to the Farm: http://www.slavetothefarm.ca/erika-tafel.html?fbclid=IwAR3I6iIXgw98nU9QJFw3CD3XY-kNNKLyLRxd-yfcpX1aco0JqXmdUQfBgcY