Six months after he was turfed and his office shut down, Ontario’s former independent advocate for children says people need to look beyond the government to protect vulnerable kids.
“I’m not going to stop being an advocate, that’s for sure,” Irwin Elman said in an interview after he received the Lynn Factor Stand Up for Kids National Award.
The award, presented Wednesday by a national charity, the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, recognizes Mr. Elman’s three decades of efforts, which shifted abruptly at the end of April when his term as Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth ended.
Mr. Elman said the award was also a nod to all the young people – children in foster care, Indigenous youth, disabled kids – who worked and campaigned with his office. Now, he said, those youth should look to work with others.
“Unions and service providers and association and lawyers and corporations who want to do better. You know what? There are things we can continue to do. This government, they made themselves irrelevant,” Mr. Elman said.
“When the government changes, and it will at some point – some governments are more impermanent then others – when government changes, young people will be ready.”
His post and those of two other watchdogs, the commissioner of French-language services and the environment commissioner, were terminated this past spring, as part of what the government said was a necessary cost-cutting move.
“When a government is interested in, and solely interested, with a touch of mean spiritedness, austerity and they lose sight of the people who depend on the fragile social-service framework, when they lose sight of the people who depend on that, it becomes very dangerous,” Mr. Elman said, “especially when there’s nobody there to remind people of the children who’ve been rendered invisible in our province.”
Mr. Elman’s annual budget was about $10-million. He said the government didn’t ask him to reduce his budget, share services or even consider appointing someone else to the job. Instead, the office was eliminated, just after Mr. Elman had received a letter from Lisa MacLeod, then the minister of children, community and social services, complimenting him and saying she looked forward to working with him.
In the end, he suspected it didn't matter how much his office cost.
"I think the government might be thinking, ‘You know what? We’ve got some things we’re going to do ... Why would we pay any organization a certain amount of money when they might criticize us? Now, what sense does that make?’
"And I wonder if that was part of the thinking. But since nobody's talked to me, I don't know."
He mentioned the government’s consultations on its plans to update the sex education curriculum as an example of its attitude toward youth.
“I noticed that when they did the consultation, which they called the largest in Ontario’s history, that they called the consultations `For the parents’ – they didn’t bother to ask students what they thought! Who’s speaking for kids in care when government is making decisions about education?”
In December, he is expected to travel to Japan, where there is an interest in setting up similar children’s advocates offices. He said he cautioned the Japanese that he no longer had a government function but they replied, “No, that’s okay, because you’ll have more time for us now.”
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