'We're talking about our children's lives here': Ontario cuts child and youth advocate

The Ontario government has tabled legislation that will eliminate the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. The office has provided a voice for First Nations children and launched investigations into the mistreatment of children and youth while in provincial care.

Child advocate office 1 of 3 legislative officer cuts included in fall economic legislation

Ontario's children and youth advocate Irwin Elman. The Ontario government announced Thursday it would be eliminating the child advocate office. (CBC)

The Ontario government has tabled fall economic legislation that will eliminate the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

The Ontario Child Advocate serves as an independent watchdog to investigate ill-treatment of children in the child welfare system and to review government policy and practice around services to children. The position has been held by Irwin Elman since 2008.

The office's mandate includes providing a voice for First Nations children and those with special needs. 

In Ontario, Indigenous children account for 4.1 per cent of the population under 15 but make up 30 per cent of children in foster care. 

"We are disheartened with the plans of the government to eliminate this position," said Walter Naveau, Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), an organization representing 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario.

"We're talking about our children's lives here — our young people, children in care — and having a strong advocate voice to ensure our children are not in danger.

"There's something very wrong here when the government starts taking away." 

Vic Fedeli, Ontario Minister of Finance tables the government's fall economic statement for 2018-2019 at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Vic Fedeli delivered the fall economic statement on Thursday. It cuts three legislative officer positions: the child and youth advocate, environmental commissioner and the French language commissioner.

The announcement comes seven weeks after the Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner released findings in an investigation into the suicides of 12 youth in the province's child welfare system. Eight of the 12 youth were from First Nations in Northern Ontario.

The report found that most of the youth had significant mental health challenges but lacked access to appropriate help. 

When asked for comment, the chief coroner's office responded via email, "The policies of the government are determined by duly elected officials and as such, we defer to them to respond to any questions, concerns or issues from members of the public."

Irwin Elman said in a statement that he was not informed of the Ontario government's plans to repeal the legislation that governs the work of the Ontario Child Advocate and found out through the media Thursday morning.

"This advocate has been quite amazing at developing networks of young people in the North, bringing their issues forward," said Suzan Fraser, a lawyer whose practice focuses on vulnerable people.

She has handled a number of cases regarding Ontario children in care, including Indigenous youth.

"I don't know how this government is more concerned about financial abuse than it is about child abuse," she said.

"We know that institutions that serve children fail when there are not key measures of accountability, where there are no watchdogs."

Suzan Fraser, a lawyer who advocates for children's rights, says she was 'flabbergasted' by the government's plan to cut the Child Advocate. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Before the legislation was tabled Thursday, Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod would not confirm that the position of provincial child advocate was going to be eliminated but said the government was going to continue to support children in Ontario.

"I can assure everyone in the legislature that the fiercest child advocate in this province will be me."

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp

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About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.