When the state takes a child into care, it takes over the role and responsibilities of the parent.
The job of the state, then, is to exercise its responsibilities for the benefit and in the best interests of the child. Recent news in Manitoba begs the question whether our province is truly meeting its responsibilities.
Last Wednesday, it was announced that Daphne Penrose has been appointed as Manitoba’s children’s advocate, succeeding Darlene MacDonald. It is encouraging to see Penrose’s qualifications and to know that she will bring her extensive experience to the role, but it is absolutely vital to remind ourselves of the importance of full independence in her ability to fulfil this role in the best interests of Manitoba children.
As with other independent officers of the legislature (such as the ombudsman), a rigorous and bipartisan appointment process is needed to preserve the trust and confidence of the public that this officer will be able to hold the government to account. This avoids the risk that the "watchdogs" may be perceived as "lapdogs," serving at the pleasure of a majority government. Appointments should be seen to have the support of all political parties, not just a majority composed of members of the governing party, running the risk that these appointments be perceived as political ones, made at the behest of the premier’s office.
Despite the suggestion that best practices regarding legislative assembly appointments were not followed, we must hope Penrose is able to rise above the appearance that the appointment may be tied to partisan politics. It is unfair to her and to the children she is mandated to serve — who require a strong voice willing to criticize departments under the administration of ministers serving in a majority government — that this perception exists. She should be able to serve our children without fear of removal from office or of not being reappointed at the end of her first term.
Commissioner Ted Hughes of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry recommended that appointment of the children’s advocate was to be by resolution of the legislative assembly upon the unanimous recommendation of a standing committee, yet neither Bill 9 nor Bill 32 currently before the legislative assembly incorporate this.
He recommended the same thing in British Columbia and when a bipartisan committee was tasked with finding a successor for B.C.’s Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond last year; they didn’t make a recommendation until they found a candidate all parties could agree on. This requires bipartisan co-operation and a commitment to respect the independence of an office that is intended to serve the legislature as a whole.
The public must have confidence in the child-welfare system and ongoing failures of governments to respond to the recommendations of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry report can only serve to undermine that confidence. As a parent and a citizen, I want to know that when a child among us is in need of protection, they will be cared for in ways that serve their best interests.
In a province where close to 90 per cent of children in the child-welfare system are indigenous, I also want to know that the government is making this a top priority, in line with the path to reconciliation we must follow.
Commissioner Hughes also recognized the importance of this in his report. He recommended that in appointing the children’s advocate, the committee "should be required by the Act to consider the candidates’ skills, qualifications and experience, including understanding of the lives of aboriginal children and their families in Manitoba. This is critical because until the overrepresentation of which I have spoken is remedied, much of the… work will be among aboriginal children and families."
Commissioner Hughes’ report bears the title The Legacy of Phoenix Sinclair: Achieving the Best for All of Our Children. We must insist that our representatives in government be committed to achieving the best for all our children — and proper process in making an appointment is as important as the fine qualifications of the person ultimately appointed, so that she, on behalf of each of us, may hold the government to the highest standards.
All of our children deserve no less.
Lorna Turnbull is a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba. She is a tax and equality law expert and co-chairwoman of Basic Income Manitoba.