The B.C. government's much-criticized decision to respond on federal election day to a report on an aboriginal teen's death was made at the last minute, and over the concerns and confusion of some staff, according to newly released e-mails.
The province's children's representative, who initially said she was just pleased the response to her report had finally been released, said the e-mails show the government's timing was a "cynical calculation."
"When something is released on election day at 3 p.m., it's very unlikely that we're going to actually talk about it," Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative, said in an interview Monday.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond released her report on the teen, known as Paige, in May of last year. The report said Paige grew up in violence and neglect with her alcoholic mother and lived in some of Vancouver's worst housing, despite 30 child-protection reports dating back nearly to her birth. Paige died of a drug overdose at 19. Ms. Turpel-Lafond has said her death highlighted a pattern of "persistent professional indifference" shown to aboriginal children in British Columbia by agencies that are supposed to protect them.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development formally responded to Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report five months later, on Oct. 19. B.C. Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux later said the government had been trying to get the report out for weeks, and the release reflected the time needed to gather input from numerous parties and complete the work. "The work of the ministry doesn't stop with a federal election," she said.
However, e-mails released as a result of a Freedom of Information request and posted to the government website show the response was originally planned for Oct. 21. That plan remained in effect as late as Oct. 15, when the government moved the release to Oct. 19, a Monday.
Shawn Larabee, a spokesperson with the children's ministry, sent an e-mail on the morning of Oct. 15 to other communications staff that said the plan was Oct. 21. However, Carleen Kerr, a manager, then asked if the release could be pushed up to Monday. No reason was given.
Jason Keenan, communications director at the Ministry of Education, immediately expressed concern about the new deadline, writing that his ministry's response had not gone up the chain for approval.
Sarah Plank, communications director for the Ministry of Health, wrote on the morning of Oct. 16 that she did not think there would be enough time to contact stakeholders. Matt Gordon, assistant deputy minister of corporate priorities and communications operations, replied to ask what was doable. He said he would be consulting with "PO," presumably the Premier's Office.
Jeff Groot, who at the time was director of communications at the Ministry of Justice, asked later that afternoon about the sudden rush: "Is there an urgent reason that this has to be announced? Sorry, I don't have that context?"
The e-mails show staff worked feverishly to meet their new deadline, still reviewing edits less than half an hour before the news release was sent to media.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she was "not entirely surprised" by what she read in the e-mails.
"In my experience as representative, I have found there to be a certain level of management of these issues so they have the most minimal political impact," said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, who was appointed to her role in 2006.
The Ministry of Children, in a statement Monday, said Ms. Cadieux stands by her earlier comments on the timing of the response. The statement said the province has also been "extremely responsive" to Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report. The statement did not address a number of questions, including why the response was moved up two days, who made that decision and whether the decision was made with the federal election in mind.
Jennifer Rice, an opposition NDP MLA and the party's deputy spokesperson for children and family, said in an interview she believes the B.C. government was hoping the federal election would minimize coverage of the response. "That was a political decision," she said.