New British Columbia child advocate plans to be a strong voice

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B.C.’s next representative for children and youth said it remains to be seen whether his relationship with government will be as fractious as that of his predecessor.   But Bernard Richard, 65, made clear in a telephone interview from New Brunswick Wednesday that he plans to pick up where outgoing watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond left off by being a strong voice for vulnerable kids.

“Certainly, I’ve been known to be fairly brash when it was required,” said Richard, a lawyer and former New Brunswick ombudsman, child and youth advocate, and cabinet minister.

“I took the provincial government to court over access to file information following the death of a young 27-month-old girl. It was a Liberal government. I’m a former Liberal member. They didn’t like it much, I can tell you that.

“But I understand the job that I have to do and that there will be always a tension — let me call it a healthy tension — between an officer of the legislature, particularly a representative for children and youth, and government ministers who are responsible for ensuring the best quality services possible to children and youth. It doesn’t need to be uncivil.”

Certainly, there was plenty of tension between Turpel-Lafond and government over her 10 years in office. In her last report, she said Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux had refused to meet over the previous 12 months.

Cadieux spoke with Richard by phone Wednesday and later issued a statement congratulating him on his appointment.

Richard, who will serve in an acting role until the legislature confirms his appointment in February, said he hopes to forge a relationship with the minister that allows them to speak regularly and share ideas.

“I would hope that she would understand that sometimes I will have to speak with a fairly firm voice, but she should know that I will understand the difficulties of her job as well, because I’ve done a job that’s similar to that.”

An all-party legislature committee selected Richard for the B.C. job.

Richard said he’s “intimidated and humbled” at the prospect of replacing Turpel-Lafond, who was hired in 2006, the same year that Richard added child and youth advocacy to his duties as ombudsman in New Brunswick.

“She’s a formidable force and a wonderfully strong voice for children and youth,” he said. “She’s someone to look up to and model and certainly I do. I’m a big fan of hers. I’m not her; I can’t be her, right? I’ll come with my own personality, my own tool kit and my own experience and baggage.

“I certainly aspire to have the same kind of impact that she had, because I need to aim high and I’ll do that, but in my own way, because I am a different person.”

He does, however, have similar priorities to Turpel-Lafond, citing the over-representation of aboriginal children in the child welfare system as one of his key concerns. He also tackled youth mental health and youth criminal justice issues in New Brunswick.

In one of his more high-profile cases, he investigated the incarceration in New Brunswick of Ashley Smith, who later took her own life at 19 in a federal prison in Ontario.

Most recently, he worked with aboriginal leaders in that province to implement recommendations from his 2010 report on First Nations child welfare.

Richard said he continued to work on child and youth issues after he stepped down as ombudsman and advocate in 2011. And it was the opportunity to continue to make a difference on those issues that drew him to the B.C. job, he said. “These are issues that I’m passionate about and it really doesn’t matter to me much whether I’m paid or not.”

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