Bob Plecas report unravelling B.C. Liberal government's relationship with First Nations

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      Watching the fallout from a recent consultant's report on provincial child protection, I wonder how this is being viewed by Environment Minister Mary Polak.

      A senior cabinet minister in the Christy Clark government, Polak has served in the past as minister of aboriginal affairs and reconciliation and as minister of children and family development.

      In the former role, she helped build First Nations leaders' confidence in the provincial government, notwithstanding its policies.

      That's because Polak was a strong advocate of the treaty process and for aboriginal students. She also understood how important the Ministry of Children and Family Development is to First Nations leaders.

      The ministers overseeing aboriginal relations and children and family development, John Rustad and Stephanie Cadieux, have not stickhandled their portfolios with the same level of dexterity as Polak did.

      Partially as a result of this, Premier Christy Clark faces her first serious controversy with top First Nations leaders in the province.

      Court ruling launched crisis

      The recent problem began when Cadieux's ministry had to respond to a bombshell B.C. Supreme Court ruling.

      Because Clark didn't have a cabinet minister with sufficient public respect overseeing children and family development, her government called in an outside expert, retired civil servant Bob Plecas, to contain the damage.

      Cadieux was getting pummelled in the legislature and something had to be done.

      The court ruling attacked the ministry for giving a father unescorted access to his four small children.

      The mother claimed that the father sexually abused his daughter; the ministry didn't believe the allegation and one official contacted the Vancouver police to disparage the woman's claim.

      This appalled the judge, but there's since been a new wrinkle. The father has gained permission from the B.C. Court of Appeal to have his side of the story heard.

      It's not out of the question that the mother's allegations may not be true and that the B.C. Supreme Court ruling won't stand.

      Plecas was called to put out the fire

      This was the controversy of the day triggering the consultant's probe, but Plecas couldn't address this specific issue because it's still before the courts.

      So with the support of the B.C. Liberal government, he prepared an interim report "on the comparable analysis of applicable legislation, policy, standards and practice and recommendations for the improvement of the Ministry, and other, systemic processes".

      Plecas recommended that "quality assurance" functions handled by the independent representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, be transferred back to the ministry within 24 months. 

      He also called for $50 million in additional funding for the ministry in 2016-17.

      First Nations backlash was immediate

      The report threatens to rupture the government's relationship with First Nations leaders, who were upset over comments about Turpel-Lafond's role in child protection.

      Soon after the report came out, they released a public letter calling Plecas's review "a wide-ranging biased survey of child welfare and politics".

      In particular, the First Nations leaders objected to his "unilateral public assessment of the value of independent oversight and the performance of the current Representative for Children and Youth".

      "We find this attack on this valued oversight role to be deeply offensive and inappropriate," they wrote.

      The letter's signatories are the leaders of the First Nations Summit, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, and the chair of the First Nations Health Council.

      Grand Chief Doug Kelly, who chairs the council, has said that he wasn't even consulted when Plecas was writing the report.

      Other First Nations activists have joined in the criticism, including Scott Clark, who speaks for the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society.

      For her part, Turpel-Lafond has characterized Plecas's report as a public-relations exercise designed to distract the public from serious government underfunding of child welfare.

      It's worth noting that the B.C. government has forecast an $879-million surplus in this year's budget.

      Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has likened the Plecas report to a public-relations exercise.

      Plecas consulted with BCGEU president

      In his report, Plecas praised the president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, Stephanie Smith, for her "wise counsel" in the preparation of the report.

      Smith's members' actions have, on occasion, been highlighted in Turpel-Lafond's reports dealing with the deaths of children in government care.

      Here's how Plecas summed up what it's like working for the ministry:

      "MCFD has always attracted a special kind of person to deliver these services in what I believe is one of the toughest jobs in government.

      "Imagine going to work every day bearing the burden of knowing that, by end of your shift, you could be taking your neighbour’s children away and putting them into care. Or visiting a house that is dangerous, dirty and ill-kept by parents who are using drugs and are resentful of society and the government you represent.

      "Your job is to help children and parents stay together by providing them with supports, but you know that if you leave the kids there they are possibly in danger. One parent is swearing at you, and one is begging you to not take the kids, and you must decide to remove the kids or leave them with dysfunctional parents who, for better or worse, are the only family they know."

      In light of this, Plecas stated that it shouldn't come as a surprise that mistakes will occur.

      "I am surprised, however, that when a mistake occurs, it is the fourth level of responsibility, the level that follows family, extended family, and community— government—which becomes the focus of responsibility and failure," he wrote. "If a tragedy occurs, front line child protection decision makers are the ones whose 'heads must roll.' "

      In one of his most controversial statements, Plecas declared that it's a "myth" that society can prevent all children dying as a result of abuse and neglect.

      Report cited social factors behind abuse

      He also insisted that the Ministry of Children and Family Development "is not in shambles".

      "As long as we have child poverty, inter-generational dependence on government, high unemployment, substance abuse and dependence, individuals with untreated, undiagnosed and recurring mental health problems, and communities that pay lip service to the concept of family and neighbours, we will always have an individual, most often as a family, or extended family member in a position of power, to abuse, and sometimes kill weaker members of society," Plecas stated. "Too often our children are the victims."

      Plecas, a former deputy minister of children and family development, has been retained by the government to continue addressing the issue.

      His interim report did not address provincial government policies that contribute to child poverty, growing inequality, or the expansion of liquor sales. All of these can increase the likelihood of abuse occurring.

      Government has a new fire to contain

      It's also curious that Plecas would praise Grand Chief Edward John for his input when John was one of the signatories to the letter condemning his review as biased. John is a former minister of children and family development.

      One wonders if things would have reached this point had Premier Christy Clark appointed ministers of aboriginal relations and children and family development with greater insights into how a report like this might have been received.

      Grand Chief Edward John was among those who signed the letter criticizing Plecas's review.

      Plecas is a throwback to an old era. He implemented former premier Bill Bennett's restraint program in the early 1980s. It was a time when the B.C. government paid little heed to First Nations leaders and refused to acknowledge the existence of aboriginal title.

      Things are dramatically different now. But the premier and her minions thought that by bringing back Bennett's fixer, they could stifle a major controversy in 2015.

      It's blown up in their faces. And my suspicion is that had Polak remained in the role as minister of aboriginal relations, it could have been averted.

      It's especially galling that all of this is unfolding in the week that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has released its full report.

      While the federal government appears to be taking steps to achieve genuine reconciliation, the B.C. government is going in the opposite direction.

      And one of the biggest reasons is that the premier of B.C. doesn't treat this issue as seriously as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has.