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The Manitoba Children’s Advocate has a new storefront office on Portage Avenue downtown with the world’s biggest and bluest sign over the door.

I think that’s a not-so-subtle signal to Manitobans that the Doer government takes the debacle that has been child welfare seriously and is trying to fix it, including giving the Children’s Advocate more power, more staff and a pretty high-profile location.

I’d be more cynical about that if I hadn’t just finished reading and hearing about Alberta’s child advocate who has been slagged as toothless, slow and weak.

Alberta has a few programs that Manitoba is looking to copy – the prevention model, for one – but things sound just as screwed up in my old hometown province as they are here. Kids in hotels, kids dying in care, a government that’s even more secretive about ongoing investigations and audits. So I’ll take an awning on Portage Avenue as a sign of hope.

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There was an interesting letter to the editor just after Christmas from a Jim Brennan who took former NDP MP Bill Blaikie to task for jumping back into politics provincially. Mr. Brennan, who appears to have no love for the NDP, said Blaikie should have left politics with a sense of pride and accomplishment, and allowed the next generation of NDPers to have their shot. Instead, he’s forced a number of up-and-comers to "sit at the political children's table" and wait for their turn again.

That includes, in my mind, longtime party volunteer Darryl Livingstone, who would have probably been Elmwood’s new MLA if Blaikie hadn’t heeded Premier Gary Doer’s call back to action. And it includes Fort Rouge MLA Jen Howard, probably the brightest of the new crop of MLAs and the one next in line for a cabinet spot. If Doer is true to tradition and does only a small shuffle, and if Blaikie fills the vacancy left by the late Oscar Lathlin, Howard will have to wait.

It would be a shame to make her spend years up in the nosebleeds like Competitiveness Minister Andrew Swan did. Howard worked for years in Doer’s inner circle as a health policy wonk, so she knows government. She was the Chosen One when Fort Rouge MLA Tim Sale retired. She made quite a barn-burner of a speech about the need for a pragmatic, third-way strategy not long ago at the federal NDP convention, which got tongues wagging. The party also put her up on CJOB in the spring to duke it out with Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen over the Elections Act changes. She more than held her own.

Whatever cabinet post Blaikie gets, everyone assumes he’ll be a supremely capable minister who brings, as Prof. Paul Thomas said recently, a little gravitas to Doer’s front bench. But a few new faces in caucus and in cabinet could have breathed some life into what’s become a pretty boring government.

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I want to float OCN Chief Glen Ross as Lathlin’s possible successor as MLA for The Pas (whenever the byelection is called…). I have no idea what his political leanings might be, whether he has any ambition to work in the Doer government or if he’d even be much good under the dome. But a colleague, a child welfare worker and a friend who is familiar with northern environmental projects all say he’s among the best chiefs in the province.

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We just got a new house with a dishwasher. Damned if we can find P-free dishwasher soap at the Safeway, even though phosphates in dishwasher soap will be banned next year. What’s up with that?

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This is the most interesting thing I have read in a long time. It’s the audit report on Winnipeg’s catastrophically messed up Indian and Northern Affairs office. It didn’t get a lot of play yesterday, I think because INAC went full-on, Harper-style, micro-manage overkill at the media briefing.

But if you are wondering why First Nations seem to be no better off despite billions in program funding, you’ll get a sliver of a snapshot why here. Missing money, shredded documents, tears and rumours and toxicity in the office, staff that can’t respond to e-mails or get undercut by the minister … all while Garden Hill has no running water.

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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter.

Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.

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