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Probe of B.C. urban aboriginal agencies sought in light of Paige's Story

06/15/2015 07:26 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT
In May, a shocking report titled Paige's Story was released byMary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth 

The report outlined how Paige, an aboriginal teen, and her mother lived on Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside where she was regularly exposed to violence, neglect, open drug use and deplorable living conditions. Paige was 19 when she died of an overdose in 2013, and Turpel-Lafond cited the collective failure to act by multiple organizations as a factor in her death.

The report contained several key recommendations. Possibly the most significant is buried at the end — a call for the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation to review all urban aboriginal program funding and publicly report the results.

Northwest Indigenous Council president Ernie Crey agrees the agencies and their delivery models should be examined.

"This is long overdue. These agencies should be held to account. It's a failed model. This is not just about money."

Crey says the recommendation should be acted on immediately.

He knows what persistent inaction feels like.

His sister Dawn Crey disappeared from the Downtown East Side in 2000. Her DNA was found on the Port Coquitlam pig farm of Robert Pickton but Pickton never faced any charges in relation to the discovery.

Pickton preyed on his victims on the Downtown Eastside, taking them to his pig farm and killing them.

He was convicted in 2007 of the second-degree murders of six women. He confessed to police that he killed 49 women.

"Sadly, this report (Paige's Story) once again chronicles the abject failure of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and its designated agencies to provide protection to a child in need," said Crey.

Urban organizations unaccountable

Paige died of a drug overdose approximately one year after her mother suffered the same fate.

They were also living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The pair, originally from Kamloops, B.C., struggled with addictions.

Several agencies receive $350 million to $400 million annually to provide services to aboriginal and non-aboriginal clients in the area.

Despite this, the pair couldn't find help.

"These organizations have conflicting mandates, or no clear mandate. It's not clear what they do," Turpel-Lafond said. 

"There's no accountability around who is funded to do what. I think this is a major concern to me."

Aboriginal with no status

Paige's aboriginal heritage comes from a First Nation in Kamloops. But her grandmother was disenfranchised, stripped of her First Nations status.

Non-status First Nations people can't as readily access services afforded to status First Nations. Sadly, the family never regained status even after enfranchisement laws changed in 1985.

"Although people try to maintain connection, a lot of people have just been spit out and there's no effort to connect them back," Turpel-Lafond said.

Paige wasn`t entirely disconnected from aboriginal services. She received minimal support from small programs in Kamloops and Vancouver. 

But as she and her mother sank deeper into poverty and addictions, more substantive support wasn't available.

"There may have been organizations bouncing around out there. But they weren't landing on the issue and really supporting her," Turpel-Lafond said.

The Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society handles the cases of many — but not all — aboriginal children in care in Vancouver.

The $30-million-per-year provincially funded agency never handled Paige's file but Turpel-Lafond wants it to be reviewed.

"That's a key issue - why are we not changing that pathway for young girls and boys that head there [the Downtown Eastside]?" she said. "Why aren't we using aboriginal service organizations to change that?"

Province seeks clarity

A spokesperson with the Ministry of Children and Family Development says Turpel-Lafond needs to clarify her report.

For instance, the term "urban aboriginal programs" needs to be defined, as does which programs fit the definition. 

As well, delegated aboriginal agencies, which are provincially mandated to administer provisions of the child, family and community service act, are already test reviewed and the results available publicly.

Non-delegated aboriginal agencies are a different story, however.

Non-delegated agencies are contracted by the province to provide family healing circles, counselling, cultural camps  etc. Child protection isn`t part of these agencies mandates, therefore reviews aren't performed.

The province does perform financial audits on non-delegated agencies, but privacy law prevents full disclosure of them.

"You would need to check with the non-delegated aboriginal agency directly to find out if they make their information available to the public," the spokesperson said.

The Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council represents 25 aboriginal service agencies in Vancouver.

Requests for an interview weren't returned.

Aboriginal leaders also to blame

Turpel-Lafond called the day she released her report "a day of accountability", and chastised the Ministry of Children and Families for how Paige's file was handled.

But aboriginal leaders are also accountable, she said.

They haven't addressed the historical pattern of aboriginal people being lost to the DTES or similar environments by advocating with health and education authorities, Turpel-Lafond said.

"Where's the collaboration to change this? That's a pretty profound question that hangs over Paige's story. There's so many others on the same path."

Also, according to Turpel-Lafond, 60 per cent of aboriginal people now live off-reserve and it's unclear who has program responsibility for them.

If aboriginal leaders want to improve the lives of vulnerable aboriginal children they have to work together first, Turpel-Lafond said.

"They don't have the levers of government or financial capacity. But they do have ability to become focussed and advocate," she said.

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