Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Too many kids in need to spend $140K this way

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If you were a beleaguered First Nations Child and Family Services Authority struggling to provide the best care to children and families in crisis, how would you spend a spare $140,000?

Would you: A) Pay the salaries of two trained social workers for a year; or B) Make a series of television ads denouncing the negative perceptions surrounding First Nations child welfare agencies?

The Northern Authority opted for Plan B, proposing to produce three public service announcements (PSAs) categorizing those who dare question the treatment of children in care as ignorant and racist.

The question now is: In this province's underfunded and desperate child welfare system, is there room for a CFS authority that, instead of dedicating all of its precious resources to the protection of children in care, wants to spend more than $100,000 to discredit journalists and other naysayers?

That's what Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh should be asking himself in light of a leaked document that reveals the Northern Authority planned to use $138,000 of its budget on PSAs primarily to slam its critics.

In a detailed proposal obtained by the provincial Tories and tabled in the legislature Wednesday, Northern Authority communications manager Rhonda Gordon Powers stated that news stories surrounding devolution and First Nations child welfare agencies had "released an onslaught of racial attitudes, qualifications of social workers in First Nations agencies were questioned, the quality of First Nations foster homes, foster children removed from loving, capable non-native homes and returned to a life of violence and despair in the communities of origin, children placed with distantly related family members who wanted to exploit them for money."

In other words, there has been story after story of First Nations children abused and killed, ostensibly under the watchful eye of CFS.

Think Phoenix Sinclair. Think Gage Guimond. Think, if your memory stretches back far enough, Nathaniel Meeches.

The proposal for a need for the PSAs continued: "The message clearly outlined by the media was devolution was a mistake, First Nations people were uneducated, unskilled and unable to care for their own children."

I must declare my bias regarding this latest abuse of authority and scarce government dollars.

Both Free Press Ottawa bureau chief Mia Rabson and I are named in Gordon Powers' proposal. For more than a year now, we've been writing stories about Manitoba's fractured child welfare system, the children shuffled from home to home, and the kids returned to so-called families because of cultural ties. Much of what we've reported has been heart-rending and controversial.

Our work resulted in Gord Mackintosh declaring what should have been obvious from the start -- that the protection and safety of children will be given precedence over every other factor.

The stories haven't made us -- or this newspaper -- popular in some corners. Frankly, Rabson and I didn't enter journalism to make friends.

We wanted to make a difference and, in this series, we have. We've been branded racists for our efforts. And so, the proposed PSAs.

On Wednesday, Gordon Powers told me the final cost of the ads would be lower, maybe under $100,000, if they could get people to volunteer to be extras. She insisted the point of the PSAs was to battle stereotyping of First Nations people.

She explained the money for the ads was not going to be taken from funds earmarked for children, but instead pared from the communications budgets of the agencies.

After question period in the legislature Wednesday, Gord Mackintosh was asked about the ads.

"It's very important that money meant for child protection not be used for other very broad agendas," he said.

"What is the intended product here?" he said. "If it's not about child protection, I wouldn't want to see provincial dollars go into this if they weren't about child protection."

They're not. They're about defending authorities, about denouncing journalists and about covering butts. Rhonda Gordon Powers told me Wednesday that the PSAs were just meant to let First Nations children know their heritage was important and that First Nations people should be proud.

At the end of our conversation, she said she doubted the ads would be made at all.

But that's because they were caught and not because someone in authority decided $140,000 could better be spent on two social workers, training for foster parents, or therapy for deeply damaged children.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2008

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