The man selected as British Columbia’s new representative for children and youth has been a lawyer, cabinet minister, opposition leader and ombudsman in his native New Brunswick, but says he has always been haunted by the poor treatment of vulnerable children.
Bernard Richard, who was New Brunswick’s first child and youth advocate, says he is bringing his commitment to helping children west to B.C. as he replaces Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who stepped down this fall after a decade in the job.
On Tuesday, an all-party committee of B.C. legislature members unanimously recommended Mr. Richard be appointed B.C.’s second children and youth representative. He is to serve as acting representative pending a legislature vote on his appointment early next year. The appointment is for a five-year term, and may be renewed for another five years.
“It’s a responsibility we don’t handle very well in this country, as wealthy as we are, as prosperous and democratic as we are,” Mr. Richard said Tuesday from New Brunswick, referring to children in government care. “It bothers me greatly.”
He said he is especially concerned that, in B.C., indigenous children make up 60 per cent of the kids in government care. Working toward solutions will be a priority once he gets to Victoria, he said.
“Clearly we haven’t done as well for First Nations children... generally as we have done by other children. That needs to change. It’s not acceptable.”
Options for dealing with the issue include more resources for families and young children to diminish the need for putting children into care, he said.
The bilingual Acadian was a Liberal member of the New Brunswick legislature for 12 years, with stints in such cabinet roles as education and justice. He also served as interim-party leader.
In 2004, Mr. Richard was named provincial ombudsman, ending his partisan role in New Brunswick politics. He took on the additional role of child and youth advocate in 2006.
Among the files Mr. Richard was involved with was the notorious case of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old who spent most of a year in federal solitary confinement, and died by suicide in 2007.
More recently, Mr. Richard led a team in New Brunswick that has been working to develop a new model for delivering services to First Nations children and their families.
Michelle Mungall, an NDP member of the B.C. legislature committee, said she was impressed with his commitment to deal with the overwhelming numbers of aboriginal children and youth in care.
“He is ready to hit the ground running, to continue on Mary Ellen’s work addressing that,” said Ms. Mungall. “We’re going to see someone there for the same reasons that she was there, for kids. Period.”
Don McRae, the Liberal MLA who chaired the B.C. committee that picked Mr. Richard, said Mr. Richard has proven himself through his work.
“There is very tangible evidence that he has been working hard in his own province to make sure the lives of children are getting better, and also being protected,” Mr. McRae said in an interview. “I expect him to bring that same passion to the job in British Columbia.”
Mr, Richard said he appreciates the independence that comes with such a position. “There is a tension that exists. I know it existed in B.C. between Mary Ellen and deciders there and it existed here between myself and my former colleagues in the legislature. It’s unavoidable in a sense,” he said.
Asked if he was tough enough for the job, he said, “Others will decide.”
Of his predecessor, he said she is a tough act to follow. “She is a tremendous advocate for children and youth. She is unequalled across the country,” he said. “I hope to, at least, equal her passion.”
Before she left, Ms. Turpel-Lafond noted that she had not been able to get a meeting with B.C.’s minister of children and family development for a year, and issued a report saying the government had fallen short in the protection of vulnerable children.
On Tuesday, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in a statement that she has worked with Mr. Richard as child advocate for New Brunswick and has been impressed with his knowledge and capacity to be an independent advocate for change.Report Typo/Error