Opposition parties boycott NDP-led child welfare panel

Alberta's opposition parties say they will boycott the government-led panel on the child welfare system.

Panel 'a sham vehicle of a government bent on whitewashing,' opposition says

The leaders of Alberta's opposition parties lay out their terms Tuesday for working with the government on an all-party panel on the child welfare system. (CBC)

Alberta's opposition parties say unless changes are made they will boycott a government-led panel set to study of the child-welfare system.

The panel under its current makeup is a "sham vehicle for a government bent on whitewashing" its incompetence, Progressive Conservative interim leader Ric McIver said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. 

The Wildrose, Progressive Conservative, Alberta Party and Liberal leaders held a rare joint news conference to issue the terms of reference they say are essential for their participation in the panel.

Those terms include:

  • Determine why recommendations from previous committees, round tables and panels haven't been implemented to date; oversee the implementation of past recommendations; determine the status of internal reviews of the 38 children in care who have died since May 2015;
  • Ensuring that panel meetings will be held in public and on the record, except when the committee decides a session should be held in camera when legislation prevents disclosure of personal information;
  • Committing to whistleblower protection for all front-line workers and managers who want to come forward;
  • Removing the minister of Human Services as an ex-officio panel member, so that he can testify and be questioned by the panel, and;
  • Offering the ability for opposition caucuses to name a substitute if a member cannot attend a panel meeting.

Opposition members say the panel proposed by Premier Rachel Notley's government will not get to the root of the problem. It is the eighth in seven years to study the child-intervention system.

The opposition parties say the government must act to implement recommendations made in the earlier reviews.

Redoing work already done

The government is asking the panel to "redo work that has already been done," said Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark. "Let's focus on implementation and action."

The opposition members also accuse the government of rushing in the terms of reference for the panel last week, destroying whatever good will existed among parties in dealing with what all agree is a crisis. 

"We started out beating up on the government on this," said McIver. "When they suggested in the house ... that they would have a committee that we would all be included in, we laid off of them for a couple of weeks.

"We only turned the heat back up after last Thursday, when they walked into this room without telling us what they were going to do and essentially did the opposite of what they said they were going to do."

The leaders say the panel needs more legislative teeth to ensure openness and to guarantee workers will not be punished if they come forward with information.

They also say Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir should excuse himself from the panel because some recent problems are tied to him.

Political points

Deputy government house leader Deron Bilous accused the opposition leaders of trying to score political points.

"Learning about this an hour and a half before question period and being given an ultimatum saying, 'Accept this or not,' I don't think that's the way you work with government."

He insisted Sabir will remain a member of the panel.

"He should be participating," Bilous said. "They're not interested in ways of fixing the system. They're just trying to go after one person's head."

Bilous said the government already planned to protect those who come forward to testify before the panel, and said of the panel's work will be conducted in public. 

However, the government is not about to wait for the other parties to come around, Bilous warned. 

"This is a very serious issue ... and we need to move forward on this," he said.

The opposition has being calling for Sabir's resignation since last week, when he revealed documents about the case a four-year-old girl who died while in provincial care were not turned over to the RCMP in a timely manner.

Serenity, a four-year-old Indigenous girl, died in kinship care two years ago. She died after suffering a head injury. She was emaciated, weighed 18 pounds, and was covered in bruises with signs of trauma on her genitals.

Medical records documented injuries that suggested the young girl had been sexually assaulted.

With files from The Canadian Press