Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond: B.C.’s children's champion

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      The new representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, can examine the deaths of kids in the government’s care.

      British Columbia's new representative for children and youth enters the office with an impressive set of credentials–and faces an equally formidable number of challenges.

      In her career, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has received a law doctorate from Harvard, a master's from Cambridge University, and degrees from Carleton University and Osgoode Hall, taught law at the university level, practised law privately, and served as Saskatchewan's first Native provincial court judge. Now she is an officer of the B.C. legislature, and she says that at the core of her work will be her belief in adapting law to personal circumstances.

      "I've spent a long time considering the issue of recasting law in the context of a pluralistic society, so it meets the needs of people whose stories have been suppressed," she said during a moving-day interview in her new Victoria office. "A situation is always more complicated than what you hear in one case or another."

      The child of a Cree father and Scottish mother, Turpel-Lafond moved off her reserve early to pursue an education. Growing up, she experienced domestic violence firsthand. Explaining how she moved beyond this background, Turpel-Lafond pointed to the resilience of families–a quality she documented when she wrote a history of her 2,000-member central Saskatchewan band, the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, for its 2006 centennial.

      The book traces the band's history of peaceful coexistence with non-Native neighbours, participation in competitive sports, and voluntary military service during the Second World War. Turpel-Lafond said she wrote the book in part for her four children, aiming to demonstrate how things have changed since their great-grandparents enrolled at the Duck Lake reserve school.

      "It's a lot different from the issues that people hear of in the media, where First Nations are living in jails, addicted to substances, and have lost their culture," she said. "The history shows the strengths of families, and how they help people persevere."

      Turpel-Lafond explained how she's benefited from the guidance of her community's elders, who, she said, teach balance in life, kindness, respect, and generosity. She pointed out that those principles are a significant part of the legal tradition of Canada and that they underline the importance of caring for children.

      "You would be very hard-pressed to find an elder who didn't work to prepare a good path for the future of the children," she said.

      One forward-looking elder is 85-year-old Lavina White, a member of the Haida Nation. White, who was interviewed by Ted Hughes during the research for his April 2006 report on child welfare in B.C. (which led to the establishment of Turpel-Lafond's position), is the author of Liberating Our Children: Liberating Our Nations , a book used to inform the drafting of the Child, Family and Community Service Act. White said Turpel-Lafond faces challenges, especially as a newcomer to the province.

      "I'm worried more children might be lost, because it takes time to learn what's what and who's who," she said during a phone interview. "The nations within the province are just like those in Europe.”¦They all have different ways of doing things, especially with childcare."

      At face value, statistics relating to B.C.'s Native children and youth tell a bleak story. Though they make up eight percent of the province's youth population, aboriginal youth currently represent 43 percent of youth in custody–approximately 5,000 individuals–and a third of those who have received a community sentence. One in seven school-aged Native children has been in government care, compared to fewer than one in 50 non-Native children. These children often face poor health and limited education and employment opportunities, and only one-fifth of them graduate from high school.

      At a March 15 First Nations Summit meeting, Turpel-Lafond spoke to approximately 80 delegates and a similarly sized audience in the Chief Joe Mathias Centre in North Vancouver. She told of her commitment to working directly with the Native community and how she hopes to open offices on reserves and hire First Nations staff members.

      "I feel we [my husband and I] have been fairly close to First Nations communities all our lives," she said. "Every child counts, every life is sacred, in every community.”¦I hope to influence the culture of B.C. to ensure children are valued and First Nations children in particular are respected."

      She noted that she understands how families and kinship ties in Native communities are structured, how when a child is injured, it affects not only the immediate family but also the extended family and the community as a whole.

      Native lawyer Kelly MacDonald–who has an extensive background in child-protection issues, and worked in the office of Turpel-Lafond's predecessor, child and youth officer Jane Morley–told the Straight that building a connection to these communities will be a challenge for the new representative.

      "The history of the child-welfare system and residential-school system”¦[has resulted] in historical distrust of government agencies," MacDonald said. "One challenge is being able to gain that level of trust on the ground and in communities."

      For example, she said, the regional organization of child-care services is not embraced by everyone in the Native community; some Native directors of delegated child-care agencies are "not keen" on that style of administration and feel they were not included in the decision-making. MacDonald also noted the challenge of working with the province's diverse groups.

      "In B.C., there are a number of different cultural groups and political alliances within the First Nations community," MacDonald said. "To complicate things further, there's a large urban population and Mí‰tis population. She [Turpel-Lafond] needs to ensure that all these disparate groups are working together."

      At the First Nations Summit meeting, delegates raised concerns about the representative's relationship to government policy and processes, the danger of a "Pan-Indian" approach, and funding issues. However, in general, the mood among delegates was supportive. Reached by phone after the presentation, the summit's Grand Chief Ed John praised Turpel-Lafond's commitment to culturally appropriate solutions.

      "She made it clear to chiefs that she would meet with them in their communities," he said. "With more than half of children in care [being Native], that was welcome news to hear."

      John said such meetings are a good first step–and that the 203 Native communities in B.C. should develop 203 separate plans. In a news release, the summit stated that her mix of "outstanding qualifications" and "deep understanding of the aboriginal community" makes Turpel-Lafond an excellent choice.

      "From the First Nations perspective, [it's] important to recognize the authority of families and communities over their children," John said. "Solutions need to start at [the level of] the community and the family.”¦Changes don't happen at the cabinet table or in a board office downtown–they happen within each and every family."

      The process leading to Turpel-Lafond's appointment began with the independent review of B.C.'s child-protection system conducted by former judge Hughes starting in November 2005. Hughes's report highlighted a range of poor outcomes for children in care, noting high rates of illness, injury, and death, slow academic progress, and high rates of incarceration.

      MacDonald, along with elders Kathy Louis and White, was invited to comment on the Hughes report from an aboriginal perspective. Released on June 4, 2006, her comments praised Hughes's efforts to consult the public and reach out to the aboriginal community.

      MacDonald said any vision for governance of the aboriginal child-welfare system requires proper engagement with the Native community, including consideration of implications that policies may have for Native self-government. She noted the importance of recruiting and retaining aboriginal staff and conducting reviews of deaths of children in care.

      On May 18, 2006, the government passed the Representative for Children and Youth Act, which allows the representative to act as an advocate on behalf of children and youth, monitor and audit designated services for children and youth, and conduct independent reviews and investigations of the deaths and critical injuries of children receiving reviewable services.

      In the lead-up to the act, the provincial government's child and youth transition team invited interested parties to comment on the proposed act. First Call, a coalition of provincial, regional, and local organizations as well as hundreds of individuals, answered the call to comment. Reached by phone, First Call provincial coordinator Adrienne Montani said that at first there was some cynicism in the child-welfare community because the call came during the summer and the deadline was in September. However, she said she believes interested parties put forward their comments in time.

      First Call recommended a number of amendments to the act, among them inclusion of the School Act and Employment and Assistance Act under the definition of "designated services" and an explicit mandate allowing the representative to support the right of children to be consulted and heard in matters affecting them. Montani said that after meeting Turpel-Lafond on March 14, she's sure of her commitment to both individual and systemic advocacy, children's rights, and the development of an integrated plan that considers services across the lifespan of children.

      "It was music to our ears, because she was speaking about advocacy in a way that was really good to hear," Montani said. "She will be very accessible to children and youth and their families."

      Since arriving at her new office, Turpel-Lafond has argued that in order to be successful in B.C., federal funding levels and processes must be reformed.

      She also criticized the current funding process at the First Nations Summit meeting. She said that funding based on numbers of children in care is a "perverse performance measure" that discourages preventive measures–akin to jails receiving funding for the number of prisoners they hold.

      "In an era when the number of children that are apprehended has declined for nonaboriginal communities, in aboriginal communities it goes up," she told the standing committee. "With the Kelowna Accord being scrapped, the issue of investment in aboriginal children's futures is a question mark with respect to British Columbia."