Nova Scotia

N.S. child and youth commission comes with 'sense of relief,' says advocate

The group that represents Nova Scotia social workers is hailing the province's commitment to improving the child welfare system, but its executive director says there are ways the plan for a child and youth commission can be improved.

Community Services minister announced new advocate authority on Monday

Nova Scotia College of Social Workers executive director Alec Stratford says the province's announcement to create a child and youth commission comes 'with a great sense of relief.' (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

The group that represents Nova Scotia social workers is hailing the province's commitment to improving the child welfare system, but its executive director says there are ways the plan for a child and youth commission can be improved.

The province announced Monday its plans for a commission. This came from a recommendation from the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children inquiry, which called for a more comprehensive alternative than an advocate. The commission will be guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alec Stratford, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, called the announcement of a child and youth commission "a great sense of relief."

"Nova Scotia is the last province to establish an office with the power that the [community services] minister talked about," he said.

Minister of Community Services Karla MacFarlane said the commission will be independent of government. Its work will cover all areas of government where services for children and youth are provided, such as education, mental health, addictions and child welfare.

MacFarlane said child advocates in other provinces are typically complaint-driven, but this commission will be proactive.

"It will be more health-centred," she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton. "Instead of just looking at the complaints, we want to ensure we're working with everyone involved and ensure all voices are heard so that it can be more collaborative."

Community Services Minister Karla MacFarlane says the new child and youth commission will take a proactive and collaborative approach, instead of just responding to complaints. (CBC)

MacFarlane said input from children and youth in the welfare system and community partners will shape new legislation and the commission's mandate.

Stratford said Nova Scotia doesn't need to do anything radically different than the advocates in other provinces. He said they have proven practices to investigate matters and advocate for policy changes to improve services for children.

Stratford said the province should also consider giving the commission the power to decide what information is revealed in investigations into an incident or death involving a child. Under the current legislation, the province makes that decision.

"In most child youth advocate offices across Canada, those powers are embedded in the advocate office, so as to avoid that political interference," he said.

Stratford said engagement with children from Black and Indigenous communities and their advocates should be a priority for the consultation process.

Adversarial approach

While there's optimism about the creation of the commission, the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers has raised concerns about the language the province has used to describe child and youth advocates.

In the final report of the inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, Stratford said advocacy is painted as "adversarial" and problematic.

"Advocacy has often taken up an adversarial blame-based approach to accountability," the report states when talking about why an advocate hadn't been appointed by the province at that time.

Stratford said the college rejects the idea that adversary is inherently flawed or bad.

"Adversarialism is necessary to evoke social change," he said. "There's not been an incident in our history in which change has occurred where there hasn't been some kind of adversarial approach to ensuring that government is accountable to the people that they serve."

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