Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Liberals stumble – again – on children and families

I can't figure out why the Liberals are bungling the important work of protecting children and helping families.
They made a mess of the responsibility in their first five years, with reckless budget cuts and mismanagement. That ended with the Ted Hughes review of child and family services in 2005, when the problems spun out of control.
Hughes held the government to account. He blamed the problems in part on budget cuts and botched restructurings. And he made 62 recommendations to get things back on track.
It was an opportunity for a fresh start, and Premier Gordon Campbell grabbed it. He promised to do better. The government would accept and implement every one of the recommendations, Campbell said.
But the Hughes report was delivered in April 2006. And the government has a dismal job in acting on the recommendations.
One of things it did do was restore independent oversight, appointing a representative for children and youth.
This week, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the Saskatchewan judge who got the job, reported on progress on the Hughes recommendations.
It was horrible. She found only 18 recommendations had been implemented, or almost implemented. Progress was made on another 19.
But that left 25 recommendations - 40 per cent - where there had either been no action, or the Ministry of Children and Families hadn't been able to provide any information to indicate what had been done.
We're talking about protecting the most vulnerable kids and helping struggling families.
The recommendations that have fallen by the way were serious. Some dealt with making sure First Nations child protection agencies were fully supported in the terribly important and difficult work they do. (The death of Sherry Charlie, beaten after being placed in a home by a native agency, led to the Hughes inquiry.)
Hughes said the ministry urgently needed a functioning complaint process, both to help people and gather information about problem areas.
There should be an actual plan for the regionalization push at the core of the government's strategy, Hughes said.
But 19 months later, the ministry couldn't show that those basic recommendations had been acted on.
Worse, the representative's report - couched in polite language - said there were signs the ministry was paying lip service both to the Hughes report and the principle of independent oversight.
Turpel-Lafond said she had hoped the ministry and her office would do a joint, co-operative report on progress on the Hughes' recommendations, which they would present together. Children first and all that. But the ministry balked.
Turpel-Lafond also noted that after she reviewed ministry plans and asked about the lack of reference to the recommendations, it sent her the same document with a few references to the Hughes report inserted.
All this left the government in a bad spot. And then things got worse. When the ministry entered its public meltdown phase, Campbell hired Lesley du Toit, a South African who had been on a ministry expert panel, as a special advisor. Weeks after the Hughes report came down, du Toit was named children and families deputy minister.
Since then, there have been a lot of meetings and talking about transformation, but not much in terms things you can see or measure.
Du Toit did an interview with the Times Colonist - the first time she had agreed to speak with reporters at any length since taking the job. She maintained the representative was wrong in finding a lack of leadership on the recommendations,
Her explanation for the missing information on progress wasn't reassuring. "Part of that is because a lot of the progress we make isn't written into documents; it's progress that is made that can be reflected by saying, 'this is what we've done,'" she said.
Anyone who has been a manager knows that when people can't offer any evidence of actions - especially on specific recommendations like Hughes made - they generally don't exist. Talk of restructuring and continuums is not a substitute for actually getting things done in the meantime.
Campbell and the Liberals were rightly critical of the wretched job the NDP did in managing the children and families file.
Amazingly, they have done worse and are blowing their chance to make a fresh start and set things right.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Courts give another boot toward treaties

The government expected a celebration last week.
The second B.C. treaty process success, an agreement with the Maa-nulth of Vancouver Island, was being introduced in the legislature.
But a big court ruling stole the show. One of the longest, most expensive land-claim cases came to an end with a very big win for the Tsilhqot'in First Nation.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice David Vickers heard the natives claim for their traditional territory, about 4,000 square kilometres in the Chilicotin, near Williams Lake. (That's about two-thirds of the size of Prince Edward Island.)
The Tsilhqot'in claimed title - actual ownership of the land. The provincial and federal governments said that couldn't be proven. Even if the natives spent time there, that didn't equate to ownership.
That's one of the big irritants in relations with First Nations today. They say the government's starting point in negotiations is to fight any title claims.
Vickers found the Tsilhqot'in had occupied the land for 200 years before it was taken from them. There was no payment or agreement to transfer ownership.
So they still owned it. He found they could show title to about half the plan claimed - about 2,000 square kilometres. The Tsilhqot'in had an interest and right to be consulted on the rest of the land.
There are some technical hitches that affect the claim.
But the ruling still sent quick shock waves through the treaty process. Typically, treaty talks have seen First Nations getting about five per cent of the traditional claimed territories. The Tsilhqot'in got 50 per cent by going to court.
There are other variables, of course. Treaty settlements have included cash and resource allocations.
But the Tsilhqot'ins' success means that expectations have just been raised sharply at the negotiating table.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip sees it as a bigger change than that. "Clearly the process is dead," he said after the ruling. It makes more sense to go to court than negotiate, said Phillip, a long-time opponent of the treaty process.
Not really. For starters, this case has taken 17 years and the Tsilhqot'in still don't actually have anything. If the governments decide to appeal, the case could be lost in the courts for another 10 years. That means more than a generation will have lost a chance at a better life.
Negotiations only work - in any situation from selling a car to trading hockey cards - if both parties have at least some interest in reaching an agreement. The more both want a deal, the better the chances of success.
The track record of the B.C. treaty process suggests no one is that keen on a deal. It's been 14 years since it all began, and more than $1 billion has been spent - about $6,000 per native in the province.
And so far, there are two treaties - the Maa-nulth and the Tsawwassen.
Sure, it's complex sorting out what happened and how much is owed. But two treaties numbers don't suggest great urgency. When people want a deal, they find a way to get it. That has not been happening.
It's understandable. For the federal and provincial governments, there are not many reasons to be keen on agreements. It would be good to have the issue put to bed, and for B.C. some certainty around land claims would bring increased investment and economic activity.
On the other hand, doing nothing has a lot of advantages. It doesn't cost much and the problem can be pushed off into the future, when someone else is in power.
For First Nations, there should be reasons to do a deal and get on with life, with digging out of the hole they're in. But there's also a big fear about settling too soon, for too little.
The Tsilhqot'in ruling should encourage the governments to get serious about reaching agreements. The risk in leaving to the courts is enormous.
And First Nations, all they have to do is look around to see why it's time to settle these claims.
Footnote: Vickers urged the governments and First Nations to sit down and reach agreements, rather than spend money and years in legal battles. "This case demonstrates how the court ... is ill-equipped to effect a reconciliation of competing interests," he noted.