Former youth advocate to join First Nations effort to transform child welfare

New Brunswick's former ombudsman and youth advocate is leaving his British Columbia job early to work with an Indigenous child welfare initiative in his home province.

Bernard Richard is returning to New Brunswick for new chance 'to make a difference'

Bernard Richard, a former New Brunswick ombudsman and youth advocate, will return to the province in the fall for a new role with an Indigenous child welfare initiative. (CBC)

New Brunswick's former ombudsman and youth advocate is returning to New Brunswick to work with an Indigenous child welfare initiative.

Bernard Richard, the representative for children and youth in British Columbia, announced this week that he's leaving the position a little more than a year after he started the five-year term.

In November, Richard was asked by New Brunswick chiefs if he would be an adviser as First Nations consolidate  a number of child welfare agencies into three.

"These are very significant and difficult issues, and I have been given the opportunity to help make a difference in New Brunswick, and New Brunswick is home," Richard, the province's youth advocate for five years until his retirement in 2011, said Thursday. 

Richard's 2010 report on the Indigenous child welfare system had also proposed a streamlined new structure for what were then 11 agencies.

Now, the plan is to have one agency for Mi'kmaq First Nations, one for Maliseet nations and one for Elsipogtog First Nation, the reserve with the largest population.

The goal is to reduce the number of Indigenous children in New Brunswick's care system.   

The way to protect children has to be what's natural for Indigenous people, respectful of their history, of their customs of their practices.-Bernard Richard, former youth advocate

Richard will be working under Chief George Ginnish of the Eel Ground First Nation in northern New Brunswick.

Ginnish is also head of the Mi'kmaq Child and Family Services Agency, and Richard will help support the agency in its work.

"He understands the challenges and he certainly understands the gaps," said Ginnish.

"With anything there's going to be growing pains, but with the full-time people now in place, that's going to help the process move forward."

Richard has already recommended a working group to hire elders who would ensure a focus on culture and customs.

"A lot of what's wrong with Indigenous child welfare has been imposed by the rest of society," Richard said.

He used the example of residential schools, begun in the 19th century as Canada developed a policy of "aggressive assimilation."

Former New Brunswick youth watchdog Bernard Richard says the public should know more about child death reviews 0:39

Later, came a series of policies enacted by provincial child welfare authorities starting in the mid-1950s that saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their homes and families, placed in foster homes, and eventually adopted by white families across Canada and the United States.

"Colonial Canada thought we knew what the answers were to all we felt was wrong with the Indigenous peoples in Canada," Richard said.

"The way to protect children has to be what's natural for Indigenous people, respectful of their history, of their customs of their practices."

Coming home

In September, Richard will start in the new position, which could last two years.

"If the work is done before, I'd be happy to move on to something else," he said.

The 67-year-old said he's not looking for a career but for challenges where he feels he can contribute to the province.

"These kinds of agencies do terribly difficult work day in and day out," he said. "They have to respond to crises, to kids at risk, and they have to provide those services."

The Lost Children is a CBC News investigation into New Brunswick's child death review system. 1:53

Although he didn't complete his five-year term in British Columbia, Richard said he feels good about the work he did there.

His tenure was marked by resetting the contentious relationship between his independent office and the provincial government.

"I feel I've made significant progress in doing that and feel good about what I've done."

With files from Colin McPhail, Justin McElroy