British Columbia's new representative for children and youth, who begins his duties on Monday, says Canada should create a national guardian for children because many files are in federal jurisdiction.
Bernard Richard, a former cabinet minister and ombudsman in New Brunswick, raised the idea Sunday as he prepared to replace Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s first representative, who held the job for a decade.
"Some of the major issues facing children in Canada are issues that fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government. While most provinces have child and youth advocates of some sort, a representative or an advocate, the federal government has none," Mr. Richard said in an interview.
Moments before he spoke to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Richard said he was chatting with Ms. Turpel-Lafond, who was packing up her items at the representative's Victoria office. He will be in B.C. through the next month before returning to New Brunswick for Christmas, and then coming back to carry on with his work in B.C.
In mid-November, an all-party committee of B.C. legislature members unanimously recommended the 65-year-old be appointed as B.C.'s second children and youth representative. He has been made acting representative pending a legislature vote early next year to confirm his appointment for a five-year term.
Mr. Richard, who was New Brunswick's first child and youth advocate, noted that "children don't worry about jurisdiction," in explaining that a national officer could focus on issues around children who fall within federal jurisdiction such as aboriginal children, Inuit children and the children of refugees.
At present, provincial representatives are limited in what they can do. "Some programs are federal programs, and they are funded federally. The constitutional responsibility is federal. So if you're a provincial ombudsman reporting to a provincial legislature, there are very significant limitations to the amount of work you can do relating to these issues."
Mr. John said Mr. Richard's proposal for a federal ombudsperson is sound and he hopes the new B.C. representative pursues it. "I think it's a good idea to have one representative, if you call it that, to oversee aboriginal children in care, particularly," Mr. John said in an interview on Sunday.
But he raised questions about how much clout Mr. Richard, as a provincial representative, would have to lobby for the creation of such a position. "What influence he will have nationally is hard to say."
While Mr. Richard plans to advocate for a national ombudsperson, he said he has plenty of work to do in B.C. and added it's the same for his fellow representatives across Canada. "There's sufficient issues and concerns. There will be lots of work for all of us in the years to come."
He said one item on his agenda next week is meeting with B.C. Children and Families Minister Stephanie Cadieux. Ms. Turpel-Lafond has said she had been unable to get a meeting with Ms. Cadieux for about a year. Mr. Richard said he's aiming for a fresh start. "I have no history with the minister so I think it's appropriate to get acquainted," he said, adding he hopes to talk about Mr. John's report and Premier Christy Clark's commitment to act on all of the recommendations within provincial jurisdiction.
Mr. Richard said his top long-range priority is trying to figure out how to reduce the number of aboriginal children in government care. More than 60 per cent of children in government care in B.C. are aboriginal.
"The numbers are nothing less than shocking so I think it has to be a clear priority of the office, and it will be for me as well," he said.
In particular, Mr. Richard expressed concern about children separated from their extended families, culture, and natural environments. Drawing on his own background as an Acadian and member of a linguistic minority, he said it is important to have self-esteem and pride in yourself, but it's hard to develop if separated from your language and culture.
Mr. Richard said the over-representation of aboriginal youth in care will take a substantial investment in prevention and early intervention as well as culturally appropriate programs and services, but he did not have a specific game plan for advancing the priority beyond seeking opportunities for advocacy.
He also said he is concerned about the mental-health needs of all children and youth, not just those in care, and will take time to study assessment efforts and services in B.C. before deciding how to proceed. "For me, the key to making a difference in youth mental health is early identification – anything we can do to identify children who are suffering early enough to be able to make a difference in their lives."
He said he is now reviewing a six-inch thick briefing binder prepared by his staff to get up to speed on relevant issues. "I am not as informed as I should be and that will be my first chore, to get up to speed."