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Ted Hughes and Canada's 'national embarrassment'

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If there's a regret I have in my career to date, not being able to say goodbye in person to Ted Hughes at the conclusion of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry would rank among the top of them.

Over the months [perhaps years] of covering the hearings and resulting court cases that sprung out of it, I came to truly respect Mr. Hughes from a necessary professional distance.

He struck me just as a truly decent person, and that's meaningful to me. 

Regardless of what anyone thinks of his mammoth Phoenix inquest report and resulting recommendations, I believe he's a man who truly cares about child welfare, children in general and has solid ideas that could allow us to do better. 

Not just the governments of the day, the CFS agencies involved or other quasi-political actors. 

Hughes' recommendations affect and involve all of us, as a community.

And the truly sad irony of it all is that if we all came to the table ready to make an honest effort to mend our fences and get on with what needs to be done, we'd have a vastly fairer and safer society to take pride in.

Maybe not today, tomorrow or in five years — but certainly in 20 or 30.

From my vantage point, of seeing some of the most tragic cases (largely adults and youths from the child-welfare system that 'graduated' into the black hole of the criminal justice system), it's wearying and yes, a little frightening at times to look down the road. 

That's not to say that good work isn't being done. It is. But the workload is immense, complex and expensive.

Politics also gets in the way of repairing the social fabric, which should trump all else for elected officials of all stripes.

At least in my opinion.

But that's not the point of this post. My point is that Hughes, despite being an older gentleman who could be out gardening, hanging out with his amazing wife or just relaxing and taking pride in his life's accomplishments, isn't done his work.

Thursday, he gave a speech in his home province of British Columbia which all Canadians should read. It partially relays some of his experiences presiding over the Phoenix inquiry and the recommendations he made, so it has local impact. 

What I took away from the speech are three things. One, the crisis of aboriginal children being vastly over-represented in child-welfare (and not just in Manitoba) is a big red flag, not just a piece of data among so many others. 

It truly is, as Hughes bluntly puts, "a national embarrasment" for a country such as ours. 

Second, Hughes makes a bang-on correlation between missing and murdered aboriginal women (and the "unacceptable" risks of violence aboriginal women face) and the child-welfare system.

It's important to remember that so many aboriginal kids get taken into care not because of abuse, but because of "neglect" — that their basic needs aren't being met (perhaps can't be met is better) by their caregivers.

That says something real about where we're truly at as a society. 

"It is my belief that the unacceptable risk of violence that Aboriginal women and girls face is attributable to the same factors that I have earlier suggested explain the disproportionality with respect to Aboriginal representation in the child welfare system and the other sectors of our society that I have identified," Hughes said in his speech.

Third, Hughes rightly points out that Manitoba, through the provincial government, must take a serious leadership role in solving the seemingly intractable national political issues that thwart real progress (issues too large in scope for a post like this).

I believe this can happen, and that Premier Greg Selinger will follow Hughes's recommendation from the Phoenix inquiry that he put the "severity and seriousness" of aboriginal overrepresentation in child welfare on the national stage at a meeting of provincial and territorial leaders later this year.

Mr. Hughes's speech garnered some, but not tons, of media attention. The Canadian Press, the Globe and Mail and the CBC each did national stories on it.

I obtained a copy of the entire speech. After reading it, I thought it was important to put it on the record for all to read in full should they choose to.

I make no further comment on it than this: Ignoring Ted Hughes and his implied and explicit warnings has major consequences for us as Canadians.

Heeding his advice could be the smartest thing Canada ever did.

Speech by Ted Hughes, June 5, 2014.

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About James Turner

James Turner rejoined the Free Press as a justice-beat reporter in August 2013 after a number of years away working at other media outlets, including the Winnipeg Sun and CBC Manitoba.

A reporter in Winnipeg since 2005, he got his first taste of the justice beat as a former Free Press intern, then as the newspaper's police reporter from 2008-09.

Among the topics he's eager to cover are youth crime, street gangs, child-welfare and how the mental health and justice systems intersect.

An avid blogger and early adopter of Twitter, James (@heyjturner) loves to write long, much to the frustration of his editors.

He despises animal cruelty. He loves 80s music and his tubby labrador retriever.

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