Wow…this was one of those weeks in Queen’s Park. We all have them from time to time. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. You know the feeling you get when you walk into a room or garage that you know needs to be sorted out, but when you look at it you say out loud, “Where do I begin?” That’s what it was like in Queen’s Park this week after the Conservatives delivered their fall economic report.
This week Ontarians were bombarded with demoralizing news such as dismal reports about our healthcare system (especially here in the North), eliminating essential watchdog offices such as the Child Advocate and the French Language Services Commissioner, reforms to Ontario’s Social Assistance support programs. And the list goes on ad nauseum.
Let’s look at one of our most vulnerable and precious sectors of our society; our kids. For most of us, children are what is nearest and dearest to our hearts.
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli announced the government is closing the Ontario Child Advocate’s office (OCA), explaining that those duties would be passed to the Ontario Ombudsman’s office. The OCA investigates complaints from children themselves or adults involved with children in foster care or in group homes. The office also works on initiatives designed to ensure the safety and improve the lives of such vulnerable children who have no one else to speak up for or watch out for them. The important thing to note is that the OAC does not just react to complaints and concerns, they are on the lookout and offer pre-emptive suggestions and strategies before damage occurs.
With the PCs passing such responsibility off to the Ontario Ombudsman, it just isn’t going to get the job done! The Ombudsman’s office already had a huge list of responsibilities to which was added a mountain of more responsibilities when they took on the issues falling within the MUSH sector (municipalities, universities, school boards, hospitals and long-term care homes and police). This is simply going to further overwhelm the office and severely dilute their overall effectiveness.
One must also consider that the Ombudsman’s office gets involved AFTER the fact when the damage is already done. A parent’s job is not just to be there to pick their child up after they are injured. A parent is there to act proactively and watch to head off potential hazards before they become an issue. The Ombudsman’s office won’t have the resources or powers to act proactively to prevent possible harm to vulnerable children. At best they can try to pick up the pieces after and recommend changes to possibly prevent recurring incidents. Sadly by this time any hardship and trauma have already taken place.
Statistics show that the number of Indigenous youth placed in care are disproportionate when compared to other youth demographics. Data from a Human Rights Commission report shows that in Ontario, 30 per cent of children under the age of 15 who are in Foster Care are Indigenous even though they make up only 4 per cent of the population. Clearly, there is a problem here. Indigenous leaders are expressing concern over the elimination of the OCA seeing as the loss of an important ally. Since awareness of this situation has come about, the OAC has been working closely with First Nations to resolve the issues by concentrating more on eliminating the causes of this problem such as poverty, lack of appropriate housing and lack of access to services such as early childhood programs.
In the Legislature, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod stated that Ontarians need not fear any harm coming to Ontario youth as a result of the decision to eliminate the OAC. During Question Period she told the Legislature that, “the fiercest child advocate in the province will be me.” We can only hope this proves to be true and not just learned Ford style bravado.
In keeping with concerns for protecting our youth, New Democrats have long been advocating for improving access to mental health treatment for our youth. Today in Ontario, one in five young people are living with mental health disorders that significantly impact their lives and the lives of those around them. 12,000 children and youth are currently stuck on wait lists to access mental health services. The average wait time ranges as high as 18 months. In light of this fact, we are hopeful that NDP – MPP Bhutila Karpoche’s recently tabled a bill to ensure children and youth receive a timely assessment for treatment will be passed by the assembly.
Children and youth in Ontario who are struggling with mental health challenges need help – not just a spot on a long waitlist. We are losing children and youth to suicide because we are not providing them with mental health and addictions care in a timely manner. When mental health issues are addressed earlier in life, the care and services provided are more effective and children and youth sustain less trauma in the interim. Earlier intervention, which happens through investment in youth mental health services, gives young people a better chance at a healthy life.
There is no doubt Doug Ford did inherit a mess when the Conservatives took office. He may have rolled up his sleeves to clean up the mess, but it seems he is just shuffling the mess and taking things from bad to worse. Ontarians deserve better than this.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters.