The NDP Government delivered their throne speech last Tuesday. They put considerable focus on making life more affordable for British Columbians. What was missing was a plan and sense of urgency for changing the systems that have created growing inequality in our province.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this year’s Speech from the Throne. I’d like to welcome all the members back. It’s great to be back in session. I also want to express my appreciation to the member for West Vancouver–Capilano for bringing T. S. Eliot into the chamber. Poetry is always something to be grateful for.
The 2018 Speech from the Throne focused largely on affordability, as we’ve all heard. Affordable child care more affordably, as my favourite line said. It is certainly an important theme and something challenging countless British Columbians. People can’t afford housing or care for their kids, but affordability is not what I’m going to speak of today, not exactly. Instead, I’m going to speak of affordability’s darker side — inequality. The fact that fundamental needs are out of reach in our prosperous province is utterly unacceptable. We must take immediate, urgent and bold action to change our path.
People are falling into the dangerously wide inequality gap that grows bigger every day because of decisions made in this chamber. Why are so many of our fellow British Columbians living with poverty, homelessness, addiction or chronic illness? Why is the child apprehension rate so startling high? Why are so many of our citizens one paycheque shy of financial crisis? Why are there people working two or even three jobs and yet still unable to cover the costs of living? These are symptoms of a broken social system, one government has helped create by allowing certain groups of people to be consigned to a life of disadvantage and suffering.
Let’s acknowledge that the playing field in British Columbia is uneven. It’s the government’s job to ensure that the game is fair, but what we have seen is an increasingly unfair advantage afforded to a few. One need only read the front page of the Saturday Globe and Mail this weekend, about the connection between fentanyl and the Vancouver real estate market, to realize that the crises we are seeing are linked.
When government turns a blind eye to these harsh and unfair realities, the competition is skewed, cheaters are rewarded, and the system does not work.
In that vein, looking for solutions, the building of a child care and early childhood education system presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to provide the next generation of British Columbians with the best possible conditions for success and to set B.C. on a path towards achieving far greater equality.
The first years of life are a phase of prolific neural development, with MRI studies indicating 80 percent of all neural connections are formed by age three. It is also a time when children’s brain development is highly influenced by their environment. Infants and toddlers, research indicates, are capable of complex thought, reasoning, and their development at this stage can impact the course of their life.
There is broad consensus that children who have access to high-quality, affordable child care enter adulthood healthier, better educated and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. These outcomes contribute to long-term health, happiness and higher earnings, as well as higher tax revenues for government and reduced government spending.
Quality affordable childhood education is good for families — mothers and children in particular — and good for the economy. And yet the child care sector in B.C. has largely been unable to meet the needs of families and unable to advance these greater societal aspirations.
There is an environment of immediate need to get on a wait-list, to get a spot, afford a spot, to keep a job and housing so they don’t have to move away from the child care they found. People need help with child care now, not in ten years when their child is 13. The people who voted with child care as one of their top issues in the 2017 provincial election likely have young children or grandchildren who need care now for the next few years, but these centres could take years to build.
Within this delicate web of public perception, policy realities, advocacy lobbying and potential for early childhood education advancements, the B.C. Green caucus’ work on this file has aimed to culminate in a sense of: “Yes, and….” We are advocating for the importance of early childhood education and educators, while not dismissing the current, pressing needs faced by so many.
Yes, families need affordable facilities to keep their children safe while they work, and those children should be nurtured to learn and grow while they are there. Yes, child care centres absolutely must be clean, safe and have an appropriate child-to-adult ratio, and they should also strive to meet a high educational standard that helps their young students thrive.
Another challenge inherent in the quality early childhood education discussion is its link to ongoing colonialism. How we define and understand the concept of quality early education and care is culturally determined. The criteria used to define “quality” is rooted in how one sees and experiences the world as well as how one thinks other people should live. However well-intentioned, it often comes from a place of racial or socioeconomic privilege.
As Karen Isaac, executive director or B.C. Aboriginal Child Care Society, explains: “Given the long history of Aboriginal children being forcibly removed from their families and communities to residential schools and the current high numbers of Aboriginal children being taken into government care, it is no wonder that some poverty-stricken families may be ambivalent about a universal child care system and see it as another type of policing over children and families.”
Likewise, the concept of universality is also problematic. First Nations in B.C., scholars write, have a failed history with universality, a system that tends to serve the majority, while actively neglecting the disempowered minority.
“Universality, high quality and comprehensiveness as guiding principles for a child care agenda will likely work well for most of mainstream Canadian society. However, we must remember that there is another aspect to this that has to be considered. Policy-making and system building are complex guiding principles for a child care agenda will likely work well for most of mainstream Canadian society. However, we must remember that there is another aspect to this that has to be considered. Policy-making and system-building are complex, and politics rarely embraces complexity. We simplify, distill and capture complicated realities in phrases and slogans, yet it is important for us to recognize the complexity and, ideally, to refuse to accept that there are simple ways of either understanding or ordering the world we live in.”
We should always strive to be aware of and concerned about consequences, unintended or otherwise, as we move forward with policy-making, particularly that which could impact Indigenous communities and children. We do not have a good record of this in Canada, and if we are serious about reconciliation, which we say we are, then we should be serious about not repeating the mistakes that we have made over and over again in the past.
This is an example where competition cannot be the organising principle of a new system. I look forward to seeing the details around the first steps towards B.C.’s long-overdue child care and early childhood education system, and I hope and expect that all of us will recognize both the importance and ongoing need for adjustments as new information and insights emerge.
There is another pressing issue that has children at its centre. I quote the Hon. Jane Philpott, who, in November, said: “We are facing a humanitarian crisis in this country where Indigenous children are vastly, disproportionately overrepresented in the child welfare system.” Indeed, Jane Philpott has acknowledged that Canada removes Indigenous children from their families at a rate that ranks among the highest in the developed world.
Let me say that again. Canada removes Indigenous children from their families at a rate that ranks among the highest in the developed world. My greatest disappointment with last week’s throne speech was that there was no mention of Canada’s humanitarian crisis, which plays out every day in this province.
I held a town hall meeting two weeks ago in Duncan. During the question period from the crowd, a Métis woman named Patricia Dawn stood at the microphone, feather in hand, and pleaded with the crowd to engage in the issue of Indigenous child welfare. She shared her experiences as an advocate for women whose children have been separated from their parents and about the tragedy that occurs every time an infant is removed from their mother by the Ministry of Children and Family Development within days of giving birth.
Another speaker was midwife Kate Coyote, who has witnessed infant removals from the Cowichan District Hospital, as she puts it, “over and over and over and over.” She said she can no longer stand by and watch Indigenous infants be separated from their mothers. She nurtures these women through their pregnancies and guides them during birth. She said she does not want to look back on her life and wonder why she didn’t do more to fight for these moms and babies in her care to stay together.
My constituency staff and I witness the reality of this crisis in the Cowichan Valley on a daily basis. Family after family comes into our office sharing deeply troubling stories about their interactions with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, about families disconnected and children separated from their parents, from each other and from their culture. The common thread among them is that they are Indigenous. Many come from generations of families raised in foster care. Many have parents and grandparents who are survivors of residential schools.
The solution to this crisis is, again, both simple and complex. Simply, Indigenous communities need autonomy in child welfare. They are able to raise their own children within their own culture and can support each other through difficult times. Their resiliency is unmatched. Yet our legislation interferes with that autonomy.
As one Cowichan elder put it to me so wisely: “Why do Aboriginal people need to prove to the white people that we can raise our own kids?”
The complexity in resolving this crisis is in the journey from where we are today to the goal of autonomous communities. It is not enough to place children in culturally appropriate foster homes. Indigenous communities are just beginning to deal with generations of trauma inflicted by the government that is left unresolved. It’s not our place to continue to inflict that trauma.
The solution is culture. There is no doubt. Within their culture, Indigenous people thrive. But during this transition towards autonomy, we must also provide the supports required, as defined by them.
Keeping a mother, who may have her own unresolved trauma, together with her infant means taking different steps in child welfare than the universally applied approach we take today. Recognizing that the bond between mother and child, if nurtured, can be part of a healing journey while breaking that bond perpetuates the same tragic cycle, must be part of this conversation.
How do we begin to address this truly urgent humanitarian crisis? We can begin by putting in place, at the very top of the administration of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, an Indigenous person, who is an expert in child welfare.
We can immerse the very capable front-line social workers in Indigenous culture so they can witness and truly understand the consequences of separating a family. We can empower and encourage social workers to be flexible in applying solutions that keep parents and children together.
We can follow the advice of the Representative for Children and Youth, who sees an immediate need for far more checks and balances to be in place around the extraordinary power that a social worker has to remove a child from his or her parents.
And perhaps most importantly, the government must significantly increase the funding of services and supports that help to prevent the breaking up of families, that heal individuals and families and that provide communities with supports for programs that they have developed.
Resolving this crisis means acting on the words we profess as our roadmaps in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, the United Nations declaration on Indigenous people, Chief Ed John’s report on Indigenous child welfare in B.C. and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.
The magnitude of the change in service delivery required to solve this crisis immediately is in direct conflict with the slow pace at which government makes legislative changes. In the past decade, the Representative for Children and Youth has published over 70 reports with countless recommendations on how to mitigate this humanitarian crisis, and yet, many of those recommendations remain unheeded.
The only way that this crisis is resolved with the urgency these communities deserve is if it is a top priority of this government, and the response is swift and meaningful. If it isn’t a priority of this government, which today it appears not to be, then all of us are complicit in the tragic outcomes for each child that is removed from their parents from today onward.
Cowichan is no longer waiting for the government to respond. Family advocate Patricia Dawn and the Red Willow Society, the Cowichan Grandmothers, midwife Kate Coyote and many other community members — non-Indigenous and Indigenous — are committed to working together to find and implement solutions, defined by the community, that support mothers and infants in whatever way they need.
There are some days on this job where the contradictions between what is said and what is actually happening make me feel like I’m living in a George Orwell novel. We are extracting fossil fuels to fight climate change. We want to increase diluted bitumen shipments to protect our marine environments. We are apprehending newborns from their mother’s arms to protect children. We are trampling on the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples while speaking of reconciliation.
We act like the systems we have built are inevitable and unchangeable, but they are not. When we see systems creating perpetual crisis, we must intervene. Let us find ways to work together to make things better for all people in B.C., and let us remember we should be judged for how the most vulnerable in our society are faring. Currently, there are far too many vulnerable people in B.C. who are not thriving.
For many years in Shawnigan, I spoke of the vision that our community had for its future. Let us all think of the vision we have for B.C.’s future. Mine includes children who feel nurtured, supported and cared for; parents who feel safe when they ask for help; young people who are given every opportunity to meet their highest potential; and decision-makers who are prepared to be solution-oriented and forward-thinking and willing to take risks.
I support the direction laid out in the government’s Speech from the Throne, but I encourage boldness. Dave Barrett, whose legacy we all benefit from to this day, is famous for recognizing that the greatest potential lies in embracing a bold, forward-thinking vision.
In the face of these crises, government has a duty to be decisive and audacious. Now is not the time for small steps or cautious measures. Now is the time to dare to set B.C. on a fairer, more equitable and ultimately more prosperous future.