First Nations youth from northern Ontario, concerned over the Doug Ford government's decision to scrap the province's child advocate, asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help on Tuesday.
The youth, from the 49 Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) communities, travelled to Ottawa this week for a meeting with Trudeau where they asked for his support in creating a child advocate for northern First Nations.
"The child advocate is essential for youth who are in care," said Ashley Bach, 23, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, following a meeting with Sen. Murray Sinclair and other senators ahead of the meeting with Trudeau.
Bach said the Ontario government's decision to scrap the provincial child advocate hurts First Nations children who are in the child welfare system.
"By removing the child advocate it's removing ... a voice for youth and also accountability for the government," said Bach.
"[We're] bringing up to the prime minister to ask for a northern child advocate, a First Nation advocate for NAN communities to serve NAN youth and we believe the federal government would be able to support that."
The meeting with the prime minister also included Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
Philpott's office said in an emailed statement that the youth request would be taken seriously.
"Recent changes by the Ontario government to cancel the role of the children's advocate are disappointing," said the statement.
"We always welcome the opportunity to discuss new proposals in order to advance these priorities and ensure the voices of Indigenous youth are heard."
Cut follows investigation into deaths
The Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services did not respond to a request for comment.
The Ontario government announced on Nov. 15 it was cutting the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. The move drew immediate criticism from First Nations leaders in the province.
The child advocate served 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 office's mandate included providing a voice for First Nations children.
Indigenous children account for 4.1 per cent of the under-15 population in Ontario, but comprise about 30 per cent of children in foster care.
In late September, an expert panel created by Ontario chief coroner Dirk Huyer released the results of an investigation into the in-care suicide deaths of 12 youth, including eight who were Indigenous.
The panel's report found that the youth "experienced fragmented, crisis-driven and reactionary services and, in some cases, no services at all."
Bach said she believes the Ford government cut the child advocate as a form of "retaliation" for the provincial office's involvement in the expert panel's investigation.
"[The report] is calling on the government to improve systems and by removing the child advocate it's a way of avoiding accountability," said Bach.
Child advocates needed in all provinces, says senator
Sen. Murray Sinclair said the Ontario government made a "terrible mistake" by cutting its child advocate.
"I think it's a terrible mistake to remove a position that is intended to protect children, not only within government policy and government circles, but also to advocate for children within the child welfare system," said Sinclair.
Sinclair is the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which called for governments to reduce the high rates of Indigenous children in care as one of its 94 calls to action.
"We know historically the child welfare system has been failing Indigenous children on a massive scale for decades now and we need the child advocate's position in all provinces in order to ensure the agencies are doing their proper work," said Sinclair.
-with files from Rhiannon Johnson and Matt Prokopchuk