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B.C. child-welfare watchdog turns down aboriginal conference

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond appears at a press conference in Victoria in March 2012.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

A week after B.C.'s child watchdog released a withering report on the state of aboriginal child care in the province, aboriginal leaders and child-care agency representatives met at a Richmond hotel for a meeting that the watchdog declined to attend, because it was focused on "talk," not action.

And as she has on at least one other occasion, B.C. Child and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond declined an invitation to attend, saying her schedule did not allow it and that she was reluctant to attend a gathering that was focused more on talk than on delivering services to children.

"I am a bit uncomfortable attending at this point because I have just done a report entitled When Talk Trumps Service – and [the Ministry of Child and Family Development] 100 per cent paid for a conference for more talking," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said Thursday.

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"It was going to be difficult for me to turn around [and attend] the meeting, unless the meeting was going to be about the report and the need to address the crisis issues for children."

The sixth annual Indigenous Child at the Centre conference was held at a Richmond hotel on Thursday and Friday. A Globe reporter asked to attend a Friday session but was turned away. Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report was listed on the agenda of the event.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report, issued Nov. 6, concluded the province has spent $66-million over the past dozen years without a single child receiving better services as a result. In response to the report, B.C. Minister of Child and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux has said future contracts with the ministry will have to focus on direct services.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report outlined spending on Indigenous Approaches, a program that aims to transfer authority for child welfare to First Nation communities by providing direct funding for various projects. In her report, she said the projects lacked clear goals and measurable results. The initiative includes the First Nations Child and Family Wellness Council, which hosted the meeting.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip disagrees. "The indigenous approach of the Wellness Council has been very innovative and has in fact had an impact on children and family matters throughout the province," Mr. Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said on Thursday. "I don't agree with the notion that essentially it is a waste of time and money – I think it is money that has been well-invested and helped many of our communities build capacity."

The First Nations Child & Family Wellness Council has received $2.4-million between 2009 and 2013 through the Indigenous Approaches program.

Other agencies named in the report have also defended their work.

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Programs offered by the Office of the Wet'suwet'en provide child welfare and community services that include camps that focus on cultural, outdoor and spiritual activities, social worker Gretchen Woodman said on Thursday.

It is too soon to say how effective such approaches are, when measured by conventional indicators such as the number of children being taken into ministry care, but early indications are promising, she said, adding that the ministry has been able to close some files as a result of work done through the Indigenous Approaches.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said groups such as the Wet'suwet'en are developing an entirely new approach to child welfare and the province needs to develop policies around that.

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