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How a Wrongful Conviction Traumatized a Canadian Family for Generations

Tanya Olivares was nine when her father went to prison. She wouldn't see him again for 27 years.

by Jake Kivanc
Nov 10 2015, 9:00pm

Ivan Henry and Tanya Olivares leaving the BC Supreme Court in August. Photo courtesy of Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

When Tanya Olivares was nine, her father, Ivan Henry, was arrested by Vancouver police for a string of heinous sexual assaults. She wouldn't see him outside the walls of a prison until 27 years later, in 2009, when the courts determined that he had been wrongfully convicted.

To Olivares, though, it was too late. She and her family had already paid the price.

"People say, 'Oh you're lucky because you're weren't in prison and you're not living how they're living,' but I live in my own prison. I've lived here for years," she told VICE.

Olivares, now 42, is the mother of two grown children. She said that her children have both suffered greatly because of their grandfather's imprisonment, largely due to her own demons. The long-lasting grief from the loss of both her mother and sister to drug addictions has significantly affected her emotional well-being, especially when trying to be a stable and clear-headed parent. Similarly, she now has to live in a world where her father is free from prison but not from the paranoia he developed from being there for so long. Both aspects have had a tremendous impact on her psyche and her approach to raising her own children.

"It's just such a big problem because you think that you just lock the guy up and put him away and he's gone," she said. "But it's not that easy. It affects everybody who's left behind and all the people connected to them."

Back in 1983, when Henry was taken away, Olivares was living with her mother and her sister in Vancouver in what she describes as a "perpetually unstable" living environment. Her mother tried to protect Olivares and her sister from the gritty details of her father's whereabouts and condition by downplaying the case at home.

During the early years of her father's imprisonment, Olivares said her family was constantly relocating to different locations around the Vancouver area in order to evade death threats and harassment that bombarded them after the news broke about her father's arrest. But every new locale required a new, more-believable swath of lies that Olivares had to make up to keep the truth about her father from slipping out.

"We had a lot of questions from kids I would meet and, you know, they would ask me where my dad was and I would have to come up with reasons, other than saying he was in prison of course, because I was very embarrassed."

"I finally came to the conclusion that saying my parents were divorced didn't work because then they'd say to me, 'Well, why don't you go visit him?' or 'Where does he live?' It's at that point that I just started to tell them he was dead. That he was gone and he wasn't coming back."

The lies, she said, were crushing. When the release of a report urging for Henry's acquittal made news in 2006, the details of his case were plastered across the internet for all to see. In response, Olivares said she panicked and immediately tried to get ahead of the grapevine by reaching out to friends and family she had lied to, all in a desperate attempt to retain their trust.

"I remembered all the media from when I was a kid and thought that this was going to go haywire," she said. "I scrambled and had to start telling people, which was really difficult. Like, 'Oh, by the way, all these years I've been lying to you. Here's the truth.' It was incredibly heartbreaking to do, I still don't know how some of them feel."

As time went on without Henry in their lives, Olivares's mother's drug addiction put a strain on the family. When I broached the topic, Olivares voice lowered and became arrhythmic as she talked about the final years living with her mother, between 1988 and 1990.

She noted that while school was often the best place for her to be because it allowed her to "escape the house for a while," she was constantly worried about what she would find after coming home. Often she'd come home to find her mother high and passed out on a table or the floor.

"Who knows? She could have been really stoned, she could have been dead herself. My mom nearly overdosed a gazillion times," she said. "It was just a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of fear. We were always living white-knuckled in terms of what was going to happen next."

Despite multiple attempts at weaning her mother off drugs, they eventually killed her. Olivares was just 17. Her sister Kari, only 15 at the time, was left entirely under her older sibling's care. Olivares told VICE that their extended family abandoned them, except for her grandmother on Henry's side of the family, whose only impediment for taking care of them was location. The grandmother lived in Regina, Sask., and Olivares and her sister needed to stay close to their father in BC.

The weight of living on their own took a huge toll on her and her sister as they struggled to survive and figure out their lives growing up without parents to guide them along. Olivares told VICE that, ever since her father went away, she never felt like she had a true childhood. She said that almost all of her days were riddled with fear and worry about the uncertainty of her future, the well-being of her sister, and the mixed emotions she had because of her father's imprisonment. He wasn't there to be with her and that hurt, but she also believed her father to be innocent, and that wasn't something she was ready to give up.

For years, Olivares's only connection with her father was through handwritten letters and the prison landline, the latter of which was a rare blessing considering he spent some of his earlier years in solitary confinement in a prison outside the province.

She would see him in person for the first time since his imprisonment in 1994, four years after her mother passed away. This prompted Olivares and her sister to begin petitioning the province to have another look at his case, a battle they fought right up until his release in 2009. It was during that time that Olivares's sister also became addicted to drugs, which ultimately ended up killing her earlier this year.

Today, Olivares and her father are entangled in a vicious legal battle with the BC government and the City of Vancouver for compensation to make up for the nearly three decades Henry spent unjustly behind bars. Just this week, the lawyer representing the city of Vancouver made a scathing argument to the BC Supreme Court to deny Henry's compensation based on his previous track record of crime prior to being locked up (which included attempted rape), making the argument that even if the sexual assault charges were unjust, he would have ended up in jail anyway.

Although Henry hasn't told Olivares about what he experienced while locked up, she assumes the worst from what she's observed while living with him. Henry, who Olivares says lives in "constant paranoia" from his time in prison, often wakes up in the middle of the night on alert. He yells from nightmares and hurts himself in his sleep. Overall, Olivares describes his imprisonment as a "generational problem."

"My dad, you know, he won't have conversations with me regarding his treatment in prison. I take it that it wasn't very good," she said. "I mean, he has told me some things, but he restrains a lot, just like I won't tell him many details from what I suffered from growing up. My dad still struggles a lot with the thought of having missed so much of his life with us, I don't want him to feel worse than he already feels by giving him all the details of the stuff I had to go through with my mom, and I think he does the same with me."

Despite everything—the struggle she had growing up, the loss of her mother and sister, and now the fight for Henry's monetary compensation—Olivares says what she wants back the most is time. She acknowledges, however, after everything that's happened, it's something that can't be returned.

"I have to speak on behalf of my sister as well, because she's not here anymore to speak for herself and that...Y'know, not having your father in your life for all those years and especially knowing that he was in there unjustly. It takes a profound effect on every part of your life. My sister and I didn't know what it was like to have a complete family, to grow up whole. That hurts more than anything."

"Nothing will bring back those years. Nothing's ever going to change—they're gone."

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