Thunder Bay·Audio

Closing Thunder Bay's child advocate office 'unacceptable,' northern MPP says

A northern Ontario New Democrat MPP says the work done over the past several years by Thunder Bay's soon-to-be-shuttered child advocate's office has "saved lives" and its pending closure will erase a valuable way for the voices of vulnerable young people in the region to be heard.

Kiiwetinoong New Democrat MPP Sol Mamakwa says work done through the advocacy office 'saved lives'

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa called the closure of the Thunder Bay office of the Ontario child advocate "unacceptable." (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)
In the spring, the Ontario Ombudsman will be taking over some of the duties of Ontario's Child Advocate, after that position was cut by the province in the fall. Just days ago it was confirmed that the changes mean the closure of a Thunder Bay-based office of the child advocate will be closing. 5:58

A northern Ontario New Democrat MPP says the work done over the past several years by Thunder Bay's soon-to-be-shuttered child advocate's office has "saved lives" and its pending closure will erase a valuable way for the voices of vulnerable young people in the region to be heard.

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa told CBC News that a visit to the Feathers of Hope forums in November 2018 underscored the importance of the Thunder Bay office to him. The forums bring together Indigenous young people from all over Ontario to meet, discuss issues of importance to them and push for change; the gatherings have been coordinated through the Thunder Bay child advocate's office.

"I heard the youth first hand back in November," Mamakwa said. "They spoke about how they were given a voice, before, they just accepted what was given to them."

"To be able to provide that voice on how the system treats them ... I remember hearing one youth say — she's crying — and said 'you know, if it wasn't for this work, I would be dead now.'"

Ontario's ombudsman, Paul Dubé, announced late last week that the Thunder Bay office of the Child and Youth Advocate will close in the coming months as part of changes under the provincial government's Bill 57. The legislation, in part, transfers the investigative functions of child advocate Irwin Elman — probing complaints about the child welfare system — to the ombudsman and eliminates Elman's position.

Silencing the voice of some of Ontario's most vulnerable people - the kids who live in isolated northern towns and remote First Nations. We'll hear from a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute about why she believes the Ontario government's decision to close the satellite office of the Youth and Child Advocate in Thunder Bay is particularly concerning. 7:32

Mamakwa said that means the advocacy portion of Elman's work, to which the Thunder Bay office was entirely dedicated, will effectively disappear.

There is no word yet on when exactly the Thunder Bay office will close. A statement from Dubé's office said the wind-down plan will include consultations with northern and Indigenous communities "to ensure they are aware of and can access the Ombudsman's services."

The exact number of jobs that will be cut still has to be determined, the ombudsman's statement said.

"I am confident that the standards, methods, integrity and effectiveness of the Ombudsman's office will not only ensure that the rights and interests of children and youth are protected, but will benefit them through our proven ability to address issues and drive positive change," Dubé was quoted as saying.
Paul Dubé is Ontario's ombudsman. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

That's not good enough, Mamakwa said, adding that shuttering the office effectively takes the voice away from many young people who need it.

"When we talk about provision of services, provision of a voice in the north, [it's] very minimal at best and non-existent at worst," he said. "We need to be able to have that voice ... and how are we going to continue to save lives through this process?"

Mamakwa added that the child advocate's work was especially important in the north, due to the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.

"It always works against our people and this is a prime example where Ontario ... it's if our youth do not matter," he said. "We need to get humanity back in this process."

Efforts like Feathers of Hope helped empower young people, Mamakwa said.

"To be able to speak up on issues, to be able to address issues that they face in public, before that, they weren't able to do that," he said.  "It's almost like they were given a platform and they were taught to speak on these issues and right now, it's going to be taken away."

Closing the Thunder Bay office is an "unacceptable approach" for the provincial government to take, he said.