PEI·Analysis

Does P.E.I. need an independent child advocate?

The children’s commissioner and advocate position MacLauchlan finally announced this month is not the independent position opposition parties were calling for. But Michele Dorsey says she doesn't believe politics will get in the way of her doing her job.

Appointee says she's not concerned about political interference

Unlike every other child advocate in the country, P.E.I.'s is answerable to government, not the legislative assembly. That's raised concerns about possible political interference in her work. (Costea Andrea M/Shutterstock)

On Apr. 19, 2017, for the umpteenth time, opposition parties in the P.E.I. Legislature questioned government on the need for an independent child advocate to safeguard the interests of Island children.

In response to a question from the leader of the Green Party, Premier Wade MacLauchlan explained what he thought was the difference between his government's view and the opposition parties' view on the issue.

"As government, we believe in a professional public service that will give service and work together with the proper resources and the proper team to protect children in this province," MacLauchlan said.

"I believe the opposition is more concerned about themselves ... because they don't really expect to be in government and they just want somebody who's going to serve the opposition."

Shining a light

The context at the time seemed clear — an independent child advocate could presumably, just as the independent auditor general does, shine a light into areas where government management could be criticized, thus providing ammunition for the opposition for many a question period.

A month earlier P.E.I. Auditor General Jane MacAdam had filed her latest report with the legislature. Among her findings — the province wasn't doing a good enough job protecting the assets of its most vulnerable citizens and seniors on the waiting list for a provincial rent subsidy were being bypassed, without being told, sometimes because of issues with addictions or cleanliness.

The Opposition took up both issues in the House.

Michele Dorsey was named on Jan. 18 as P.E.I.'s first children's commissioner and advocate. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

The children's commissioner and advocate position MacLauchlan finally announced this month is not the independent position opposition parties were calling for. The chain of command for new commissioner Michele Dorsey leads to the premier, just as it did when she served as a deputy minister.

Every other province's child advocate answers to that province's legislative assembly.

'Made-in-P.E.I. approach'

In making the announcement, MacLauchlan called it a "made-in-P.E.I. approach" that puts "collaboration over criticism," creating a more "proactive" office to promote children's welfare while helping families navigate government services.

New Brunswick's Norm Bossé says child advocates need the freedom to be able to issue reports critical of government's handling of child welfare issues. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

In other provinces child advocates have also served, much as the auditor general does, as a watchdog who lets the public know when government fails to meet its obligations or fulfill its responsibilities — in this case, in protecting children at risk.

On Monday, New Brunswick's child and youth advocate Norm Bossé released a highly critical report, concluding that province's child protection system failed to protect five siblings from "damaging chronic neglect," despite countless warnings about their safety.

Last week, speaking as the head of the Canadian Council of Child & Youth Advocates, Bossé questioned whether a child advocate answering to government would have the freedom to be so critical, or whether a political appointee like Dorsey would face political pressure.

'Have to have the freedom"

"We have released reports over the years that sometimes are critical of government and you have to have the freedom, the liberty to do that," Bossé said.

Dorsey responded by telling CBC News she's waiting for legislation to be developed to provide her with the power and mandate to review government services. She said when she's able to do that, she will, and will share results with the public.

Asked whether her political bosses might try to interfere with the release of a critical report, Dorsey said, "I think there's a distinction between working in a collaborative manner across government lines, and then having your authority or your mandate curbed by political interference. I think those are two different things."

Power in legislation

Dorsey said it hasn't been determined yet what legislative powers she'll receive — currently she has none.

But, for context, here's what P.E.I.'s independent auditor general has under the Audit Act:

  • Can only be hired or fired by a two-thirds majority of the House.

  • Free to examine any aspect of government administration she chooses.

  • Spends her budget as she sees fit.

  • Can compel witnesses to testify under oath.

  • Annual reports delivered to House by Mar. 15 and must be made public.

According to an order of cabinet issued Dec. 19, Dorsey serves in her position "at pleasure."

That means her appointment can end at any time, for any reason, at the behest of cabinet and the premier.

It's the same arrangement with P.E.I.'s ethics commissioner, another position created by MacLauchlan following the same "made-in-P.E.I." approach.

Started in tragedy

There was no mention in the media release issued by government the day Dorsey's appointment was announced of where the calls for a child advocate originated.

They came from the inquest jury looking into the tragic death of Nash Campbell, a four-year-old boy who was murdered. It was the jury's belief a child advocate could provide a voice for a child in Nash's situation, preventing such a tragedy from ever occurring again.

The rationale given by government as to why it wasn't following through on this recommendation from the jury before now has evolved over the years, from arguing government is investing in front-line resources and not a bureaucrat, to saying the services are already provided.

Now government has changed its position, and the message is "collaboration over criticism."

It remains to be seen whether that's the final word on the call to do better — born from such a terrible tragedy.

More P.E.I. news

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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