01 Jun Bill 18: Child Protection and Accountability Act, 2nd Reading

Mr. Clark: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this bill. If ever there is an issue that will be before this House that should not be politicized, this is it. I know that it’s an issue that inflames passions and emotions and that that all comes from a very good place, but when we’re talking about children in the care of our province, where the province has become the parent on behalf of all of us in our community, that is the most serious thing, I think, any of us will ever deal with, and it is something, I know, that for everyone in this House, on both sides, is a responsibility that we take very seriously. I also understand and get where the emotion, passion comes from. At the same time, when we’re talking about these issues, I would hope we wouldn’t heckle one another and talk over one another.

When we’re talking specifically about what Bill 18 is and is not, I think it’s equally important that we don’t make this bill out to be more than what it is. It is a start. It is a small step on a very long road, and I would like in my comments here this morning to frame it in that way, that it is not going to solve every problem. It shouldn’t. It would be inappropriate for us at this stage of where the ministerial panel stands to suggest that it would. It would also be, I think, naive to think that we could do such a thing in this Assembly, as much as I know that each of us would really like to.

What we see in child intervention is the result of a very long line of intergenerational trauma, of poverty, of addiction, much of that as a result of residential schools. We need to understand how it is that we got to the place that we are at now and why it is that we are grappling and struggling and not succeeding, flat out not succeeding, and failing children in our society.

I want to be clear. That’s not intended as a shot at this particular government or, certainly, at the people who work in child intervention services or child and family services or Community and Social Services or Health or Education or Justice or any of the departments. The vast majority of people I know who work in those departments are tremendously dedicated people, working in conditions and situations that I know I’m not brave enough to work in. I couldn’t do it, yet we have people who do step up every single day and do that.

Is this bill perfect? It certainly isn’t. Does it reflect the phase 1 recommendations of the child intervention panel? I’d say that mostly it does. One of the things I’ve grappled with as a member of that child intervention panel and as I learn more about this issue – and I also think about my role on this side of the House as an opposition member – is the comments that we make in this House, the impact that that has on people working in the system, and the contribution that we may make inadvertently, I hope inadvertently, that I hope comes from a good place but which can contribute to a closed culture, a culture of fear, a reactive culture. When we’re dealing with situations that are desperately critical, desperately sad, and just outright tragic, there are things where no matter how good the practice may have been, no matter how many safe landings there may have been – there may have been 500 safe landings in a row – the thing that we talk about is the 501st, that didn’t go well. Now, that 501st shouldn’t have happened.

I will talk about some concerns that I have with the bill and some of the things I hope to continue to see out of the panel because certainly things are not perfect, not as good as they could or should be. I want to be careful and very clear that I’m not excusing certain ways of working, but, you know, I’m grappling with the need to hold people accountable for mistakes and for bad practice. Of course, we do. I don’t think anyone would suggest that we don’t. But how do we do that in a way that doesn’t create or contribute to a culture of fear within child intervention services, child and family services, within Alberta’s public service generally?

I always have questions about the balance, then, between privacy and transparency. Transparency is an important thing. It’s what I think, obviously, this Chamber is about. But I think it’s important that we’re clear on why it is that we as a panel have not been able to find consensus on the question of the publication ban. Some of the experts on our panel have argued quite forcefully that, in fact, we actually need to change or extend the publication ban based on the changes that were made, I believe, in 2014, coming out of the fatal care series.

The changes that were made to the publication ban to allow for publication within four days of a death of a child in care were well intentioned and solved a problem we very clearly had. There was a frightening lack of transparency, and a lot of things got swept under the carpet that should not have. That transparency, I believe, is absolutely important, but the discussion around the table has been: “Well, have we gone too far? What is the impact on communities? What is the impact on families? These are families dealing with the tragic loss of a child, who need to decide within four days to make a court application. Is that fair or right? Is that appropriate? Are there better ways of doing that?” That’s the conversation that we’re having around the table. So to see that that has not been able to be resolved by the panel is, frankly, not a surprise to me. Now, I think that we have perhaps kicked the can down the road further than we might like, but it is still an issue. I can assure you that I’m not going to drop that issue, and I know the other panel members won’t either. So I’m not surprised to not see that in the bill.

The question about fatality inquiries. Part of the challenge with fatality inquiries is how far in the future they occur relative to the incident. That, unfortunately, can do a couple of things. It can retraumatize people who have gone through a very difficult situation. The recommendations that we find – in fact, there was a fatality inquiry conducted recently for an incident that happened 10 years ago. Well, without question, the practice that occurred 10 years in the past is no longer the practice today. The learning that happened happened very shortly after whatever it was that caused that particular incident. That isn’t to say that we should never have a fatality inquiry. Of course, we should. It’s not to say that we should never see a name published. We absolutely should. But it doesn’t act in a timely way.

What I see in this bill are some initial steps to address some of those challenges. The one-year time frame, I think, absolutely is an appropriate one. The resources required to meet that, I think, are an open question, a very good question. I recognize that procedurally we can’t address it in this bill. It is a process that we’ll need to go through. I think the OCYA has some very legitimate questions that need answers. There are only seven investigators in his office. He is certainly going to need more than that if we’re going to achieve the timelines that we strive for.

Information sharing is obviously a very, very important part of this bill and something that this bill does not fully address, but it takes some steps to do that.

You know, another question I have is on having culturally relevant experts. I think that’s a very important part of the bill, and I’m very pleased to see it there.

Then there’s designated funding, which is substantially underfunded. The funding gap between the services provided by delegated First Nation agencies, DFNAs, on-reserve and what children off-reserve receive is not right. Some of those challenges fall into that jurisdictional morass of provincial and federal funding, but children find they fall between the cracks of the different bureaucracies, different jurisdictions on-reserve, off-reserve. You know, that’s one of those things I think all of us have a moral obligation to address. This bill won’t address that, nor would I expect it to.

You know, in hearing from indigenous peoples and DFNAs in particular, some of the stories of band councils having to supplement their budgets – they’re very meagre budgets. I’m just astounded at how small those budgets actually are. Some of that is provincial responsibility, but primarily it’s federal. That doesn’t excuse inaction. Are there opportunities for us to invoke Jordan’s principle and say: “You know what? We’re going to fund that. We’re going to make sure that children are taken care of, that DFNAs have the resources they need. Then we’ll go fight with the feds in the background.” That’s the complexity we’re going to manage on behalf of children to ensure that they get the services they need so that we can start to move towards some better outcomes. That’s what we should be doing.

Certainly, I will be supporting Bill 18. It’s a small step, and I would suggest, if I can offer some advice to the government, not trumpeting this as some massive move forward. It’s a small step in response to what we saw coming out of phase 1 of the panel. It’s an incremental step. There is much, much, much more work to do. I’m certainly committed to doing that, and I hope that all members of both the child intervention panel and of the Assembly are as well.

One of the areas where I think we really do need to do some work, again reflecting on my role in opposition and all of our roles here as elected officials: what are we doing to contribute to a positive culture within child intervention, recognizing that there are going to be times when things don’t work out and that when that happens, we should take that as a learning experience? There may be times where we do need to hold people accountable, where something truly has been missed in a way that is negligent, but I believe that those changes that need to occur are not so much on the front lines of the child intervention workers and the social workers and the remarkable people who work there. Perhaps there may be a case or two where that’s not true, but I think that in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, those are the folks that are really doing what they need to do.

As we saw in our meeting last week, a lot of those people will push the envelope, will colour outside the lines where necessary, will not just find themselves in a bureaucratic box because the situations they’re dealing with don’t lend themselves very well to bureaucratic boxes. There are some remarkable, remarkable people who do tremendous work and who are willing to go: “Well, I know this isn’t the rule, but right now this is what’s needed. So if I get in trouble, I guess I get in trouble, but I’ve helped someone today.” How do we in the opposition react when someone has done that, but it doesn’t go well? What probably happens is that a question gets asked in question period, a news release is issued, and then there’s a great hue and cry: well, they broke the rules, and something bad happened. Well, what about all the other times when they went outside the rules or interpreted things in a way that allowed them to help someone that did go well? That’s the kind of culture I think we need to be creating.

I think we’ve also seen in the panel, earlier on, some evidence of a blocking culture, where people came before the panel, relatively senior, and were asked: “Well, what would you do?” “Well, I don’t feel that’s my place to say,” was the response. “What are you afraid of?” That, to me, was evidence of a very closed culture, a culture of fear. When you have people in an organization, especially higher up, who perpetuate a culture of fear, that’s not good. That’s not the kind of responsive system that I think we want to try to build.

So Bill 18 is a start. It’s a small step. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s not everything, nor should it be everything at this stage. What it tells us is that we have so much more work to do. You certainly have, Mr. Speaker, my commitment to do that work.

Thank you.