'The lives he's touched': Legal Aid lays off long-time youth advocate

Critics question lay off of Mark Cherrington who worked as a youth advocate with Legal Aid for 25 years.

Legal Aid says restructuring is part of a 3-year strategic plan to modernize service delivery

Mark Cherrington often tweeted about the single mothers he helped. (Mark Cherrington/Twitter)

Last week Mark Cherrington volunteered in mental health court, drove a young mom to a treatment centre and rescued a 19-year-old who had just been beaten up by a drug dealer.

It was a typical week for the long-time youth advocate, except for the fact that he no longer had any official role.

On Sunday, Cherrington revealed on Twitter that he had been laid off after 25 years working in the trenches for Legal Aid Alberta — largely advocating for and supporting vulnerable Indigenous youth and young women.

The reaction was swift as tweets of outrage, sympathy and gratitude poured in from local lawyers, former clients and frontline workers. Many demanded answers from Legal Aid.

In an interview later that day, Cherrington — who has regularly called out the provincial government and other authorities on issues around marginalized youth — said he couldn't discuss the details of his June 10 termination.

Instead the advocate told CBC how much he cherished his time with Legal Aid, where he helped marginalized youth and young women grappling with sexual exploitation, suicide, gangs, drugs, poverty and addiction and also celebrated their successes. 

"I've developed great relationships that have lasted decades with families and with fellow staff members but particularly our most vulnerable," said Cherrington.  "I'm going to continue helping them to the best of my ability and resources, and volunteer at the courthouse and do whatever I can to help anybody. And I'm not going to ignore those two in the morning phone calls."

Andrew Livingstone, manager of communications for Legal Aid, said policy prevents him from publicly discussing human resources matters but elaborated on the agency's restructuring.  

"We have begun to change the way we do business and our new three-year strategic plan provides a clear path forward for Legal Aid Alberta to modernize its service delivery so clients receive quality services appropriate to their circumstances in a timely and efficient way," Livingstone wrote.
Youth advocate Mark Cherrington often shared photos and stories on Twitter of the young people in Edmonton he helped. (Mark Cherrington/Twitter)

Former NDP minister for the status of women Stephanie McLean, who has followed Cherrington's work for more than a decade, said he has always gone beyond the call of duty.

"I fear for so many vulnerable young girls, particularly Indigenous girls, that they won't have the amazing, capable, knowledgeable assistance and advocacy of Mark Cherrington," McLean said in an interview. "Considering the need for reconciliation, and particularly the need to provide more, not less services to vulnerable Indigenous girls, it's even more horrific that this kind of service would be taken from that population in Edmonton."

Civil rights lawyer Avnish Nanda described Cherrington's termination as a serious mistake.

"His work over the last 25 years is indescribable — the lives he's touched, the help he's provided, the awareness he's brought to serious injustices within our community," said Nanda.

Cherrington, who often spends his days shuttling youth around the city, connecting clients with groceries, diapers and other basic needs, or lobbying for access to services, said it hasn't been a one-way street.

"They've helped me spiritually and they've helped me emotionally be a better person," Cherrington said.

Jonah Mozeson, press secretary to justice minister Doug Schweitzer, noted Legal Aid  is an independent organization with authority over operational decisions.

Mozeson said Justice Alberta is proposing a $14.8-million supplement for Legal Aid this year, in addition to their base funding of $89.3 million, to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system.

With files from Anna McMillan