One of the key figures in child welfare in Manitoba is leaving her post, creating a leadership vacuum in an organization responsible for supervising nearly half the kids in care in the province.
Elsie Flette has served notice she will resign as chief executive officer of the Southern First Nations Network of Care (Southern Authority) effective this fall. She has not yet chosen a departure date but said in an interview it will likely be in late September or early October.
Flette's announcement comes at a time of political turmoil for the Southern Authority. Last November, the provincial government appointed an administrator to oversee operations after a dispute between the agency and aboriginal leaders left its board with less than the minimum number of directors.
The Southern Authority is losing the only CEO in its 10-year existence, by many accounts a respected leader with a national and international profile.
"Her departure will leave an incredible gap," said Wayne Helgason, former head of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg. "(It) will be very hard to find someone, in my view, to match Elsie's capabilities."
Flette, 62, has held leadership positions in child welfare for the past three decades. She said this week she's ready for a new challenge -- work that is "meaningful" but with less stress.
"I've got two or three options that I'm considering right now. (I) haven't made a decision but hope to in the next couple of weeks," she said.
Flette acknowledged the struggle with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) over control of the Southern Authority board factored into her decision, but was not the main reason.
"As you know, the last couple of years have been quite difficult in terms of the political environment," she said, although she maintained the dispute did not affect the day-to-day operations of the authority.
In late 2010, the Southern Authority filed a lawsuit to block the AMC appointment of five Manitoba chiefs to its board. In an affidavit filed in early 2011, Flette said she was concerned the chiefs would curtail performance reviews of aboriginal agencies under her watch if they gained control of the authority. "A hostile takeover of the Southern Authority board to advance a brazenly political agenda is not in the public interest," Flette said at the time.
Under Manitoba law, the AMC has the power to name members to the Southern Authority board, but the authority's bylaws forbid chiefs and band councillors from becoming board members.
For a time, the AMC refused to name any directors other than aboriginal leaders. There are now four directors in place -- none of them chiefs. But they are only serving in an advisory capacity to provincial administrator Peter Dubienski, an assistant deputy minister with the provincial Family Services and Labour Department.
Dubienski said this week he hopes the province will be in a position to return direction of the authority back to its board by the end of the year. He has been involved in ongoing negotiations with the AMC to resolve issues relating to the appointment of directors.
AMC leaders could not be reached for comment on Flette's departure.
Flette's replacement is unlikely to be in place before she leaves, so Dubienski will act as interim CEO as well. If a new CEO is hired before Dubienski relinquishes control over the authority, the provincial bureaucrat said he would ensure current board members play a prominent role in the process.
Helgason, a former social worker and the only long-term member of the board, said the transfer of authority of native child welfare to aboriginal control in Manitoba has been a success, and Flette's contributions have been a big part of that. "The quality of care the children are getting has vastly improved," he said.
Brad McKenzie, a social work professor at the University of Manitoba, said Flette will be difficult to replace. "She was an amazing leader for the delegation of aboriginal child welfare services in Manitoba," he said.
McKenzie said Flette has a national and international profile in aboriginal child welfare services. Officials from as far away as Australia, he said, have come to view the Manitoba model.