France tunes in to mother’s guilty plea in B.C.

Bizarre tale features jailed professor who wants to seek French presidency

VANCOUVER — Detours in the long and winding road to a PhD are not unknown.

But few can measure up to what befell Nathalie Gettliffe this spring, as she journeyed all the way from her native France to defend her doctoral thesis at the University of British Columbia.

Instead of appearing before an elite academic panel, she found herself arrested at the Vancouver airport and thrown in prison.

While her professors wondered why she hadn’t shown up, Ms. Gettliffe was being charged with two long-standing counts of child abduction.

The charges were laid after she fled five years ago to France with two children from a broken marriage, in defiance of a B.C. court order. Since then, her case has become even more bizarre. Behind prison walls, where she remains to this day, Ms. Gettliffe has not only managed to complete her thesis defence, but also give birth to a baby boy.

In the meantime, she has become a cause célèbre in France, the subject of numerous media reports pillorying Canada for its treatment of a pregnant woman and turning B.C. into a land of “terrorist justice” in the eyes of her many fervid French supporters.

Adding fuel to the frenzy, Ms. Gettliffe has announced her intention to run for the presidency of France in 2007.

The remarkable saga of the 36-year-old learned linguistic professor, however, is at last nearing an end. In a brief court appearance yesterday, her lawyer, Richard Fowler, announced that Ms. Gettliffe will plead guilty today in B.C. Supreme Court, rather than face a scheduled jury trial on the charges against her on Nov. 20.

Mr. Fowler said sentencing arguments will be heard later this month.

But Ms. Gettliffe’s guilty plea is unlikely to diminish the fierce emotions her case has generated in France.

There, she has been characterized with great sympathy in the media as a brave mother seeking to protect her children — Jose’phine, 12, and Maximilien, 11 — from an alleged cult-like church attended by the children’s father, Scott Grant.

ICOC: a cult of Christianity

Sociologially, the movement has many cultic elements as well.

The Vancouver Church of Christ has links to the U.S.-based International Church of Christ, banned from many U.S. university campuses for cult-like recruiting drives.

At the same time, prison conditions in B.C. have been characterized as “worse than Guantanamo” by Ms. Gettliffe’s current husband, Francis Gruzelle, who appears regularly on French TV to plead his wife’s case.

The couple say they are writing a book called The Hell of Canadian Prisons.

By the summer, the atmosphere in France had become so volatile that police feared a vigilante attack to prevent Mr. Grant from bringing Joséphine and Maximilien back to B.C., after gendarmes tracked them to a small village in the French Alps where they were being cared for by a relative of Ms. Gettliffe.

Their fears prompted a police escort for Mr. Grant and the children on the way to Paris and then to the airport.

Mr. Grant, whose marriage to Ms. Gettliffe ended in divorce in 2000, regained custody of the children after France’s highest court upheld the original B.C. court ruling.

Alarmed by public hostility in France, Canada’s ambassador to that country, Claude Laverdure, took the unusual step this week of writing to French journalists “to set the record straight” about her alleged prison mistreatment.

“It is completely understandable that those close to Ms. Gettliffe want her released,” Mr. Laverdure wrote. “But it is unacceptable that the reality of this case should be so distorted, that the Canadian justice and correctional systems should be so unjustly criticized and that Ms. Gettliffe’s situation in prison should be so wrongly portrayed.”

Ms. Gettliffe gave birth in late September to her new son, Martin, at a public hospital near the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in the Fraser Valley, where she is incarcerated.

Since the birth, she has been given a single room in a special wing of the medium-security prison to allow her to care for the baby.

Earlier, arrangements were also made to enable the imprisoned woman to give the required oral defence of her PhD thesis that had been so abruptly cancelled by her arrest.

Ms. Gettliffe’s six-member academic committee agreed to conduct the hearing at the Alouette prison, a first for the university, according to Sherrill Grace, who chaired the unusual proceedings.

It was a marvellous experience, she said. “The guards did not stay in the room, and I must say that Nathalie was incisive, intelligent, articulate, poised and professional. There was not the slightest ripple. She was just an academic again. It was very touching.”

Prof. Grace, a veteran of the UBC English department, said she became caught up again in the excitement she feels whenever there is engagement with a young academic.

“There’s a euphoria about it. You completely forget where you are,” she said. “What’s the old saying? ‘Iron bars do not a prison make.’ “

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