The importance of a first impression

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is leaving little doubt that, as British Columbia's new child and youth representative, she's going to be taking the independent nature of her legislative office seriously. The former Saskatchewan provincial court judge told reporters today that her old job was being left open for her. "Which is very good," she explained. "Because, if for some reason there's inadequate resources in this office or if the commitment is not there. I can return. I don't think that's going to happen. I think I'm preparing for a success. But given the sea changes that have occurred in this area, I'm not naive."

"But I intend to put my best efforts at success here," Ms. Turpel-Lafond continued. "So I'm delighted at the fact I can return, should I wish to. But I don't want to for a moment mislead you. Because I'm very excited and pleased about this opportunity. As difficult as the issues are, I really can't think of an area I'd be more happy to work in then this area."

Nevertheless, that willingness to pack her bags should give Ms. Turpel-Lafond considerable leverage with the Campbell administration - which is anxious to avoid any further bad publicity surrounding the ministry of children and family development. And she already seems to be exercising some of that leverage.

During her news conference, Turpel-Lafond said she was "a bit concerned that there be adequate resources in the office of the representative to be able to hire qualified people" to analyze child deaths in British Columbia. And she wants to make sure that office isn't "simply located in Victoria or Vancouver," suggesting its operations be expanded throughout the province. The following is a rush transcript of that conference.

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Ms. Turpel-Lafond I'm Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. I'm here today just to answer any questions you might have. I finally made it here from Saskatchewan after an exciting week last week of three attempts to fly here and not be able to make it here with all of the snow you've had. So it's a delight to be here. And I left Saskatoon this morning at about -40 degrees Celsius. So it does feel like summer, even though there's snow on the ground. I'm also happy to say that today I was sworn in as the representative for children and youth by the clerk of the legislative assembly. So I was delighted to do that. And I was also very honoured to have been appointed by the legislature to the new position. I welcome any questions that you might have today. And, of course, given that I will be coming to British Columbia sometime in the New Year and establishing the independent office, I look forward to working regularly with the press and keeping you abreast of any developments, meeting with your editorial boards and ensuring you have open access to public information in my office. So, having said that, I'm delighted to answer any questions you might have. We have, I think, about half-an-hour.

Media How did you come to apply for the position?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond How did I come to apply for it? It was brought to my attention. And I had a great interest in the review that was completed here by Justice Hughes - which I thought was quite a thorough and significant review. I also thought that British Columbia had the potential to actually lead the country - despite all of the difficulties of the past in this area - because of the commitment. I read about it and I thought - well, I will see if it's appropriate.

Media You say it was brought to your attention. Did anyone from government approach you?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond No. No. It wasn't anyone from British Columbia. So it was brought to my attention in Saskatchewan actually.

Media The Hughes report itself - is that kind of your game plan for creating this office? Is there any departures or refinements that you see in implementing that?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, first of all, the Hughes report in my view is the blueprint for the office of the representative. I mean, in many respects, the legislation that was passed in May tracked much of the language of the Hughes report. The difficulties identified by Justice Hughes in his report will be the main issues I will work on. There were a number of open suggestions and recommendations that require further refinement. But his report is the blueprint. And I think it's a very solid and important report - witnessed by unanimous approval in legislature of the report and the office. I mean, there's a very strong commitment to move forward on it. But there's a lot of work to be done.

Media (inaudible)

Ms. Turpel-Lafond The first important principle is that a job such as this job - which is unique in many respects - is a wonderful opportunity. I mean, essentially my responsibility is to advocate for children and youth, to ensure that the children in care and in custody are properly taken care of and that government compliance with standards is met. And, of course, the difficult task of, where there is an injury or death, to ensure that it's properly reviewed and that lessons are learned and changes are made. Those responsibilities are significant but they are ones that I'm very personally attracted to. I'm happy to have this job. In some respects, the Hughes report responded to a very negative situation. So I'm coming to British Columbia, in a way, in light of a negative situation. However, I think there's a lot of positive aspects to the job. And there are areas that I will be particularly emphasizing. My initial work - and even though I won't be here full-time till the New Year - I've started already. The initial piece of work I want to do is on a multi-disciplinary team on child deaths and injury. The chief coroner's report was released recently. I've reviewed that report. I want to see that team established. And I want to see the work on prevention begun in earnest. Because there were certainly a lot of difficulties with how files were handled, with how cases were handled. I look forward to a meeting with the family members of some of the children who lost their lives - their grandparents - in order to sit and talk with them to ensure their interests are taken into account and that they're treated with respect and consideration, in terms of the future. So there are some areas that I will have a great deal of activity initially. I will hope to present, probably in the month of March, a plan of action to the legislative committee - the responsible legislative committee here in the legislature - that outlines key activities for the next year. But that is one area where I'm not waiting till I start. The work will begin on that area.

Media The First Nations are about five percent of the population of B.C., I think six or seven percent of the children and, as of last year, more than 50 percent of the children in care. Is that something that's going to be always with us or is that something we can do something about?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, I think there's a lot that can be done. My background - I have a First Nations background, a member of a First Nations band and have fairly extensive experience in that area. It will be a priority for me. It was a priority in the Hughes report. It will be a personal priority for me, addressing the social conditions, the economic conditions for aboriginal children is significant. I know, of the 10,000 children in care, more than 50 percent are aboriginal. I have a very strong interest in that. I intend to begin discussions to have a memorandum of understanding with the main political organizations and service providers to see that there be extensive work done to build the capacity of those agencies, those Indian agencies that provide those services. But also address the social conditions. I mean, obviously, in this province there was a lot of leadership shown around the Kelowna Accord and investments in social economic development, health development for children. This will be a big part of the office of the representative.

Media You have two other people to hire. How are you going to go about doing this? Because you have your own vision that you're bringing to this job. So is there something in particular that you will be looking for?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond The Hughes report recommended at least two deputies be hired - one on the advocate side, one on the child death side. I will follow that recommendation. It may be that a third will be required in the future. But, in those two areas, I intend to go through a public process of hiring. It may be necessary to hire someone in an acting capacity immediately, particularly on the child death side. In terms of vision, I bring to the position a vision. The imprint of the Hughes report is part of my vision. I've inculcated it. I share many of the principles he's outlined. But I think there's lots of opportunities to expand it. Obviously, I'm going to be a new member of the province of British Columbia - a new citizen here with my four children and my husband. And there's a lot of room to expand the vision. And I hope to hire people and work with people inside my office and outside my office that can assist me and ensure that we can fulfill that mandate. But the priority is to take youth and children very seriously in British Columbia, to ensure that they have input into decisions that impact on them and, where there have been political commitments made to improve the conditions for them, to see how government is doing in its performance to fulfill those commitments. So I will expand the vision, I'm quite sure. But I have objectives that must be met. So there is a short-term plan that must be achieved.

Media Will you be living here or Vancouver?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, you might have to speak to my husband further about that. But I hope to move here. I hope to move to Victoria. The former office of children and youth had offices in Vancouver and Victoria. In many respects, that was a good model. However, my understanding of my role is that there will be extensive work required in the northern parts of the province. There's a lot of work that's required in Prince George. I am very interested in looking at the issue of sexually exploited children and youth. And the area of Prince George is an area where I think there's work that needs to be done. I look forward to expanding the operations throughout the province. So I may be located here. But I do not want the office to be simply located in Victoria or Vancouver. It needs to be more accessible, particularly for the advocacy side.

Media Can you elaborate on these multi-disciplinary teams? Who they might include? I know we've had stories on them in the past. But could you be more specific about who you'd hire to get in place for these teams?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, the chief coroner's report on the transition files identified some of the players that I think are important: representatives of the coroners' service; representatives of the departments that are responsible to deliver services to children - designated services for children; the health professions - medical professions; possibly nursing profession; First Nations where there are aboriginal children particularly impacted - which has been the case here; perhaps researchers. Those are some of the beginning elements of the team. I am a bit concerned that there be adequate resources in the office of the representative to be able to hire qualified people to be able to do both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data - particularly where we see trends. There was a recent study that was published indicating that in youth suicide, one out of every three youth suicide reflected consumption or alcohol or narcotics prior to the suicide. There's an area of a trend. I would like to look very carefully at that issue, in terms of prevention. So we need to make sure we have the resources in that team to do the work.

Media So these teams are seconded people that would go and perform these tasks when they're needed...?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond I think we need a team that is at ready, standing at ready and operating regularly and operating with other professional organizations, service providers and community groups. But we need to put a very strong effort to have that team work. And if people are too busy - if someone is too busy - well, we need to designate someone who can spend the time and do the effort to make sure this area receives the proper attention. Because this is a recurrent theme.

Media The job specifically would be to make sure other children aren't at risk?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Yes. It's prevention. We need to understand what has happened. And there's been numerous studies. I'm not going to be opening and studying again the situations or deaths that have been studied thus far. However, I do wish to learn from that experience. And the whole goal at this point has to be prevention. But, in order to have effective prevention, we need all of the interests represented in a multi-disciplinary team, with some leadership to the team, some timelines and some reports. And this is where I'm very interested in working immediately.

Media Has the budget been fixed for your office?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond The budget is not fixed. As an independent officer of the legislature, I will go through the budgeting process. That's in the next few weeks. There is a transition manager, as the Hughes report called on government to have a transition manager. That's the deputy attorney general for the province of British Columbia, Allan Seckel. You can speak with him further. I'm meeting with him to discuss that matter. So we will be coming forward to the legislative committee to present an interim budget with the understanding that I may need to come back. And I'm in that process now. But we need to have some flexibility with it.

Media Was it tough to give up the position as a judge and have you kept the option open to go back to that someday?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, it was not an easy decision to give up a position as a judge. I've been nine years in a court room and used to the cut and thrust of making rulings on evidence as so on. There're some things that will certainly be a change. It wasn't difficult to give up. I will take a leave of absence. My position is available to me. The court that I sit on and the government of Saskatchewan is good enough to leave it open for me. Which is very good. Because, if for some if for some reason there's inadequate resources in this office or if the commitment is not there, I can return. I don't think that's going to happen. I think I'm preparing for a success. But given the sea changes that have occurred in this area, I'm not naive. But I intend to put my best efforts at success here. So I'm delighted at the fact I can return, should I wish to. But I don't want to for a moment mislead you. Because I'm very excited and pleased about this opportunity. As difficult as the issues are, I really can't think of an area I'd be more happy to work in then this area. I'm very happy with the opportunity.

Media Is there a term limit on your position?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond The statute prescribes that the appointment is for a five-year term. And it can be renewable for an additional five-year term. But I think it's renewable upon, again, a unanimous resolution of the legislative assembly. So I'm taking it one day at a time at this point.

Media We were talking about the child death studies. Jeff was referring to them. And you were talking about doing the trend investigations and looking at the aggregate reporting and whatnot. I've noticed in the past that some reports that follow that line come up with the kind of obvious recommendations - like use seatbelts and watch kids around the pool and whatnot. Is there interest or anticipation that you'll get a little deeper into the root causes in cases where evidence is piling up around similar circumstances?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Yes. There's no question we have to get behind the superficial and into the root causes. Aggregate analysis and quantitative analysis is important. It takes the emotion out of it. It can sometimes take out the impulse for change as well. It's difficult to reduce lost lives of children to some data. And I'm not interested in looking at some simplistic bromides - like sponsoring a wear-more-seatbelts campaign. There are agencies and offices that have that responsibility within British Columbia. I think that the real concern for me is children in care. And one of the real clear areas that's coming out of all the reports that's been done is the importance of them having access to good healthcare services immediately. Proper home assessments, home visits, monitoring - but also individually having access to healthcare. By that, I mean a pediatrician, proper assessment, proper support. That's an example of where an investment could be made immediately and ensuring that happens. Once a child comes into care at regular intervals, there's an area where some substantial improvements can be made in the current system.

Media You said earlier that, in British Columbia, we could lead the country in child protection. I'm just wondering, the premier said last year the system has suffered a systemic breakdown. We've had a case where a child was put in the home of a person who ended up murdering her.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond You're referring to the Sherry Charlie case?

Media Yeah. How low are we starting here? How bad is it across the country if you say we could be the best in the country?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, there have been tragedies in British Columbia and I don't for a moment downplay that. There have been system failures. Justice Hughes's report indicated that some of the budget cuts were perhaps too deep and too severe and that they had an impact and that there may have been a correlation between that and some of the difficulties. However, there are some significant investments in British Columbia in improving the conditions for children - investment in literacy, investments in health and education in which, combined with proper oversight from government, can improve the situation for children. The principle that must prevail here is that children are valued. And that children are important and are valued - and not just in sort of a simplistic way, like we value our children now please keep them away and out of public view and don't let something bad happen to them. There has to be a culture change with respect to children. And it strikes me that the citizens of British Columbia, in particular, have endorsed that very strongly to say repeatedly - by demanding for the Hughes report, by demanding that an appointment be made to this office - have said very strongly that they want their children valued. And not just children in care and children and custody. They want to place a high premium on the lives and social development and education of children. And I take them at their word. So I'm delighted to be here to participate. And I want to be part of seeing that happen. I think there's going to be a lot of oversight to see that that happens. But I think it's an extremely attractive opportunity.

Media Have you had an opportunity to meet with Ted Hughes yet and - if not - will you be?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Yes, I have spoken with Justice Hughes. He is in Regina quite often because he's running the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Project. I've spoken to him. I've spent the last while speaking with a number of individuals that are sort of wise elders with respect to this area - judges and others who have worked. And I've been listening to them, trying to get a good understanding of the position and reflecting on what they've had to say. And I will be meeting with them again. And Justice Hughes, in particular, I hope to keep on the wise elder status - although I think he thinks he's quite youthful and energetic. He might not like me calling him a wise elder. But I will continue to consult and work with not just Justice Hughes but others who have played leadership roles to children in British Columbia.

Media As a provincial court judge, you had a reputation for outspokenness. And sometimes, in the view of some people, you spoke out on issues that were not necessarily within your mandate as a provincial court judge. Do you intend to bring the same approach to your current position?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, first of all, I'm not going to speak very much about my career as a provincial court judge - except to say that judges deserve to be criticized and the public should criticize them. And that's par for the course. I can't say I confirm what you're suggesting. But that's part of the process. Inside the Saskatchewan justice system, there are many difficult issues - as witnessed by numerous inquiries that have been held and are ongoing. And, being a trial court judge in a very difficult environment where there are some issues with respect to race, etc., there's a need for leadership. And judges have a responsibility there. So it's not uncommon there that some of this happens. In this job, I'm not a judge. I'm on leave. This is a job defined by the statute. But it does require strength. I mean, I think probably 80 percent of the job will be collaborative - working with government departments, monitoring them. And maybe 20 percent of it will require reporting in which there has to be some criticism. I'm not seeing that as the predominant role here. I'm seeing the predominant role as collaboration and working together because there's a lot of commitment to change.

Media (inaudible) So how do you envision how much you will be listened to and will your recommendations be followed or just shelved?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, that's the risk. There's always a risk in this position. It will really depend on having a good relationship with the people in this room to ensure that the information is in the public prevue, working effectively and independently with all the political parties and with other persons of interest and significance in this field. I will make my best efforts. Will I accomplish what needs to be done? That remains to be seen. But it's not going to be because I didn't try. I will do it. What happens? Well, we'll see what happens down the road. And, certainly, as a judge I've been through the experience of making a decision, having it overturned, having a decision embraced and the system changed dramatically in many respects. So, you know, I guess I try to see what happens. It's not me that's invested in this as much as it's an issue which I will work on with dedication with a team. And we will see where we stand.

Media When you applied for the position, did you have some sort of conversation or meeting with government officials that led you to believe that they might be very open to what you might say, give you carte blanche or was it more...?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond It was a completely independent process. It was a process that was done by the clerk of committees on behalf of a committee which did an interview. And, according to the report to the legislature, (I was one) of several candidates. And I just participated at arms length, as would be expect. So there was no inducement. There was no sidebar discussions with anyone. And I'm just really pleased to be here. And I don't think I would feel comfortable if there were those types of inducements or sidebar discussion. Because I do not want to be pursuing anyone's agenda except the agenda of an independent office of the legislature.

Media I just wanted to follow-up on what Sophia asked you first. A few months after Judge Hughes issued his report, there was a bill tabled here in the house that would be restricting the public access to the reports of officers. Obviously, the Hughes report was pretty (inaudible) for them. But, since then, the bill has been shelved and not discussed any further. But there was the risk that government could have had the reaction of get a hold of whatever document could be harmful to their reputation. Cause I guess they did not expect to have something such as the Hughes report. How can you prevent having something like that happen? That all the reports that you would write would have to be vetted by a minister or a ministry before you...

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, the legislation itself is very clear that, as an officer of the legislature (I will be) reporting directly to the legislature and to members. And it's not a matter of where a minister receives a report and then tables it. It's a direct reporting process. And, in terms of the information issues, the legislation prescribes that it's the responsibility of the representative to decide what type of information would be publicly released, consulting with the information commissioner, the privacy commissioner. And there are privacy issues, particularly affecting the identity of children. However, there's a great ambit of discretion within the office of the representative to decide what gets released publicly. And that is not open to political or partisan influence by an Opposition or by government. So there are some guarantees and protections within the legislation. Could the legislation be repealed? Of course it could be. But, at this point, it's in place. So I feel quite - at least starting out - I feel quite confident that it's there. And I will be reporting directly to the legislature.

Media The ministry of children and family development is going through another bout of transformative change, decentralizing, changing its culture. Do you have any thoughts on that process or have you been made aware of that process as it's currently underway and how do you view yourself relating to that process?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Well, I am getting briefed on that process. I take a very keen interest in it. And I intend to work closely to see what the objectives are. Are they consistent not only with the Hughes report but the role that's been prescribed. And there will be many, many discussions around that. It's a matter of great interest to the office. And we'll be very carefully monitoring it. Very significant matter.

Media You've said you have the option of returning to your bench in Saskatchewan if the commitment isn't there, if the resources aren't adequate. Could you elaborate on that? What concerns do you have there?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond I don't have any concerns at the outset. However, given the fact there have been three major sea changes in this field in the past decade, I think I said when I was recruited fools may rush in where angels fear to tread. And this is something one has to provide for. I have four children. I have a family. And I certainly have to consider that situation. So I am delighted about the fact that I am on leave and that my position in Saskatchewan is available to me. But I am committed. I am here. I'm committed to the full-term. So I doubt very much I'll have to use that. But it is a good insurance policy.

Media Will they hold the job for you for five years...?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Yes.

Media You have an extensive background regarding FASD. You've been an advocate for that particular issues. How does that background inform your new role and will it be impacting your new role?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond Right. Well, I don't know if I'm an advocate so much as I have certainly written decisions in the field. And I've conducted some research with neurophysiologists and others on forensic testimony and so on. But the issues in the court system where there were children effected by alcohol-related neurological disorders are a very significant issue in Saskatchewan. It's an important issue here. British Columbia has the benefit of having the leading experts in the world - like Dr. Sterling Clarren and others - in British Columbia. I view that as a very good opportunity to see the work that their doing. And there's some innovation in British Columbia that doesn't exist anywhere on that point. So I do have an interest in that. Children with disabilities - any spectrum of disability - is a matter that concerns my office. And I have had some experience with alcohol-related neurological disorders and have a strong interest in the field. But children with disabilities are vulnerable often - including in the criminal justice system. And they require close scrutiny to see how they are treated, if they are properly accommodated, respected. And that will be an important part of the work of the office as well.

Media So you see yourself as having some oversight on Community Living British Columbia and it's operations?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond It's in the act. It's in my act. It's part of my responsibility. So I'll be working with that field, assisting children to live independently as they move into adulthood.

Media It sounds like you have the autonomy and the independence and the power to do your job as you see fit. But you sound like, and correct me if I'm wrong, but if (inaudible) what you see fit is not being followed, you might just leave?

Ms. Turpel-Lafond I wouldn't say that. I'm here and I'm committed. But it is a comfort to me that I have a position to return to in Saskatchewan. But I'm here and I'm committed. And I certainly wouldn't bring a family and leave the bench with the blandishments that are part of the bench to come to this position which will require a lot of delicate collaboration and leadership. And I look forward to it very much. Because I believe firmly that I have an opportunity to make meaningful change. But I'm not so naive to think I alone can do it. It will require cooperation from the administrative branch of government, from the executive branch of government, from associations, organizations that are working with communities. So it's going to require a lot of people to be part of a team to engage in change. I will make my best effort. But I will be part of a group of people doing it. So I do need the support of the citizens of British Columbia which has been expressed through the unanimous resolution and organizations that are working to support children and youth.

3 Comments

The judge is no shrinking violet. she knows what she wants and if the Liberal governemnt don't come up with the funds and the staff, well she is back on the bench in another province. Good for her and I'm sure a lot of kids will be better treated by her being in the job. the committee picked well.

As a foster dad of 4, I look forward to this appointment. I am hoping she will actually get things done.

Wow! That's impressive.

Many people have been waiting for this since the darkest days of 2002 and it looks like we may have got ourselves a breath of fresh air vs. same-old, same-old. Kudos to all those responsible for bringing Ms. Turpel Lafond here. This is a critical position and it sounds like the Legislature made a very good choice in filling it. Hope she gets all the help she needs to get started on the important task ahead--it won't be easy but by no means impossible if the political will & support are there.

I particularly liked her reference to truly valuing our children. Not just the usual "children are our future" slogans or us parents doting on our own precious tots, but truly understanding their value and role in relation to our success as a society and therefore in government too -- i.e. recognition that portfolios like education and MCFD are every bit as important (vs. just keep a lid on it or better yet devolve it because it's too politically sensitive) as Finance and Economic Affairs and the other ones that involve big trucks or digging big holes in the ground or old boys in expensive suits .

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