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Ted Hughes has led inquiries about child abuse in Manitoba and British Columbia.

Don Denton/The Globe and Mail

A retired judge who has led inquiries about child abuse in two provinces is calling for a national strategy to tackle deep poverty, inadequate housing and poor social supports for aboriginal children.

Ted Hughes, who recently completed a public inquiry in Manitoba into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, spoke in Victoria on Thursday to staff at B.C.'s watchdog agency for children. He is in the provincial capital seeking to enlist Premier Christy Clark to help push his agenda forward at the next meeting of Canada's premiers this summer.

"It is certain there can be no long-term solution without the involvement of the federal government in this national problem," Mr. Hughes said in a speech to the staff of the Representative for Children and Youth. A copy of his speech was provided to media outlets.

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"The cornerstone of such a concerted national effort must be an attack on the underlying vulnerabilities resulting from colonization, with poverty and a lack of adequate housing – including water supply – at the top of the list."

Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Development, said the province wants Ottawa to do more for on-reserve children to improve protection services as well as support for special needs and mental health. "I know our Premier shares Mr. Hughes's concern that aboriginal children are over-represented and it is a challenge that requires a broad approach," she said in an interview. "It is hard for the province to go it alone."

Mr. Hughes conducted a review of child-protection services in British Columbia after the violent death of another aboriginal girl, Sherry Charlie.

He said the similarities of protection issues he found in Manitoba and B.C. underscore the need for a broader view of why aboriginal children are grossly over-represented in child-welfare programs in Canada."In my opinion, a provincial initiative will neither rectify nor reverse what I have characterized as unconscionable … and a national embarrassment. I refused to accept that it will indefinitely remain as such. There has to be a solution."

In Manitoba, more than 80 per cent of children in care are aboriginal, although First Nations people make up just 16 per cent of the general population. The imbalance in B.C. is also pronounced: Aboriginal children are 12 times more likely to end up in government care than non-aboriginal children. And half of status Indian children in B.C. live below the poverty line.

Phoenix Sinclair was killed by her mother and her mother's boyfriend in 2005 after prolonged and horrific abuse. Her body was found in a shallow grave. There were many missed opportunities to protect her: The Winnipeg Child and Family Services received at least 13 reports of concern for the girl.

Sherry Charlie was just 19 months old when she was taken by child-protection workers and placed in the home of a relative under a "kith and kin" program designed to keep aboriginal children in their communities.

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But child-welfare workers did not obtain criminal-record checks that would have revealed her uncle's violent past and record of domestic violence. Weeks later, the toddler was killed by her uncle, who repeatedly slammed her head against the floor and stepped on her, and then tried to blame her three-year-old brother for her death. The girl had broken ribs that had begun to heal when she was killed, indicating previous abuse.

The Office of the Representative for Children and Youth was created in B.C. on the recommendation of Mr. Hughes. Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said her office has handled 12,000 advocacy cases, but without the political will to tackle root issues like poverty, vulnerable children will continue to be put at risk.

"The frustration Ted expresses is one I share. I don't feel like I am making a lot of progress in B.C. in part because we are not solving the underlying issues."

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has already agreed to raise the issue at the next meeting of the Council of the Federation, which will be held in August in Charlottetown.

Now, Mr. Hughes is seeking to enlist allies. "I have requested a brief meeting with Premier Clark … to seek her support for his endeavours," he said.

An official from the Premier's office said she would welcome such a meeting.

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