A decade ago, B.C. embarked on one of the most wasteful and disastrous public policy programs imaginable.
It was revealed in all its bleak light last week by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province’s Representative for Children and Youth. The fearless children’s advocate decided to look into the government’s decision of almost a decade ago to hand over child welfare authority to First Nations.
She figured that something was amiss when she continued to receive daily telephone calls from kids in native communities looking for help, long after the province began funding aboriginal child welfare authorities to take over the care and protection of children. Ms. Turpel-Lafond began to conclude that the government’s plan, well-intentioned as it may have been, had gone awry.
She was right. She discovered that tens of millions of dollars had gone to consultants and meeting planners and little else. Aboriginal child welfare agencies were being given millions without a single child protection case for which to account. Meantime, the children those dollars were supposed to protect remained as vulnerable as ever.
There was a complete lack of oversight and accountability for any of it. Much as there is for many aboriginal programs funded by governments.
Unlike others, Ms. Turpel-Lafond isn’t afraid to speak the truth about what’s happened here.
Because of the brutal legacy of residential schools, aboriginal communities resented the idea of the government apprehending their children and putting them in the foster care of other, mostly white families. First Nations leaders convinced the government that their communities were better able to provide that care. While they were at it, they persuaded the government to give them control over education and health care as well.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond contends that this reckless move has been a huge mistake. It’s hard to argue differently.
The residential school experience did leave a terrible and lasting mark – that can’t be denied. But you don’t respond to the fallout from one failed policy by replacing it with another. The children who were being removed from their homes by government welfare authorities were being removed for a reason.
“There is rampant neglect, there is abuse and there are really serious mental-health issues on the part of the parents,” says Ms. Turpel-Lafond, herself a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. “Today, the kids in these communities are not getting the care and protection they need. They’re phoning me and saying: ‘I need help. I’m homeless.’ Or, ‘There is no one in my home. My grandma has gone away. I’ve been alone all weekend. What’s going to happen to me?’ ”
The public millions being spent to fund aboriginal child welfare authorities appear to have mostly ended up in people’s pockets. Few children have been helped. But any attempt by government to revert to its old ways now will be met with fierce resistance from those who have come to benefit financially from the new order.
“A whole industry has been built up around this,” says the watchdog. “After my report came out, I received some really nasty, vicious e-mails from some of the people who stand to lose the most from any change in the status quo.”
No doubt. She believes the absence of oversight in the aboriginal child welfare system applies equally to aboriginal health and education, too. “This kind of thinking, that we can just hand this stuff over without a care, is not being critically examined,” says Ms. Turpel-Lafond. “I don’t think some people in the aboriginal community understood what they were taking on, for starters. Now, they don’t know how to provide the services they’re expected to provide.”
She says education results on reserves are as bad today as they’ve been for a long time. But the public hasn’t seen those numbers because they’d be an embarrassment to the government – a rebuke of its decision to devolve more and more responsibility to First Nations.
The provincial government needs to reclaim control and work collaboratively with aboriginal communities to build systems that work better for everyone.
“We have to move on this stuff in a real unflinching manner,” says Ms. Turpel-Lafond. “We can’t afford squander another generation of aboriginal children.”