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CAS Oversight is Top Issue

September 3, 2010 permalink

When Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath made her first visit to Manitoulin Island the local newspaper interviewed her. When the discussion got past pleasantries, the first topic was children's aid. Mrs Horwath still supports ombudsman oversight of CAS, though she is skeptical of the willingness of the current Liberal legislature to enact it.

This article shows that the summer of demonstrations outside CAS offices is having an effect. Both the press and the politicians have noticed.



CAS accountability among goals of NDP leader Andrea Horwath

MANITOULIN—It may have been the first time that Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath had set foot on Manitoulin, but it wasn’t like she was landing on the moon.

The MPP is no stranger to our craggy limestone terrain, having grown up in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton—a city she still calls home, and represents in the legislature as the member for Hamilton East.

Nor are the concerns of Islanders—whether they relate to wind energy, pharmacy closures, or the transparency of child-protection agencies—all that foreign to Ms. Horwath, as she encounters similar issues in her travels elsewhere, plus tries to do her homework on the places she hasn’t had a chance to experience yet in person.

Described in her NDP bio as a “46-year-old dynamo,” and by Now Magazine as “a scrapper from the Hammer,” Ms. Horwath—pronounced Horvath—succeeded Howard Hampton as leader of the party in 2009. She’s known for her record of community activism and labour advocacy, as well as for being both exuberant and down to earth.

Those qualities were evident last week as she arrived in M’Chigeeng for the launch of the new Gima Radio station, located on the site of the Neon Raven art gallery. During a lull in the proceedings, she skipped aside from the crowd—actually, she sashayed under a low-hanging pine bough—to share some thoughts with the Expositor.

“The main reason for being here, quite honestly, is that I’ve never been here before,” she said. “I’ve tried a couple of times, but it never worked out.”

The last time she made an attempt to visit Manitoulin, she got as far as Tobermory, but “it was the civic long weekend, and we couldn’t get on the ferry,” she bashfully recalled.

Apart from a personal desire to visit the Island, Ms. Horwath feels it’s her duty to visit each corner of Ontario. “I made a big promise to myself that I would get to as many parts of the province as possible,” she said. “You can’t purport to represent people unless you know what their interests are, so this is really a listening and learning tour for me.”

That morning Ms. Horwath had attended the annual fish fry put on for members of the Whitefish River First Nation at the Lafarge terminal on Birch Island, and later in the day she would meet with the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin. A trip to Gore Bay was also on the itinerary.

Meanwhile, Ms. Horwath was happy to discuss a number of issues that have resonance on Manitoulin, including her own private member’s bill to subject the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to more scrutiny.

Bill 93, introduced by the Hamilton East MPP in 2008, would enable the provincial Ombudsman to investigate decisions made by the CAS. The bill received first reading in June 2008, but was derailed with the prorogation of the legislature this spring, meaning it needs to be reintroduced this fall.

It’s not the first time the bill has stalled. An earlier version—Bill 88—was advanced by Ms. Horwath back in 2006, and also received first reading, but it died with the 2007 election and had to be recycled in the new parliament.

The NDP leader feels the move is long overdue. “We’re one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that doesn’t have a third-party, independent review of child protection,” she said. “I know the CAS has a difficult job, but ultimately they have a great deal of power over the rights of children and families. At the very least, we should have some assurance that this power is used responsibly.”

Rallies have been held across the province in support of the bill, including one on July 9 in Little Current. A more recent demonstration occurred on August 20 in Sudbury.

“This government is stonewalling,” said Ms. Horwath. “They claim the Child and Family Services Review Board provides accountability, but it’s still an animal of the ministry, appointed by the ministry, so it’s not independent.”

Had the McGuinty administration wished to expand the Ombudsman’s purview to include the CAS, “they had a big opportunity to do so when they amended the Child and Family Services Act in 2005,” said Ms. Horwath. “Several ministers failed to make that move.”

At this point, she doesn’t feel terribly confident that her bill will gain traction, as “it’s a majority government,” and Liberals haven’t shown much interest in the proposal so far. To Ms. Horwath, that’s a shame.

“Right now there’s no natural right of appeal, and that’s a detriment to children and families,” she said, while stressing: “The point isn’t to lay blame. It’s to provide accountability.”

Ms. Horwath would like to see Ombudsman oversight extended to “hospitals and the whole health-care system” as well. “It’s 50 percent of the budget, but there’s no independent review,” she pointed out.

The NDP leader also expressed concerns about the pharmacy sector, which is reeling in the wake of new government rules that trim the price of generic drugs, but do so while simultaneously eliminating subsidies that pharmacies once counted on from drug manufacturers.

“Everyone wants to see the cost of drugs go down,” she said. “But we don’t want to see a loss of health care for Northern communities. We have an obligation to Northern and rural communities to keep pharmacies on Main Street.”

Ironically, just as Ms. Horwath was making this point last week, the Island IDA Pharmacy on Little Current’s main street was—unbeknownst to her—preparing to close up shop. The drugstore, a fixture of the downtown since the mid-1970s, will be gone before this month is over.

Asked for her views on the Green Energy Act, which has paved the way for wind projects like the one at McLean’s Mountain and polarized many on Manitoulin, Ms. Horwath admitted that her party was generally supportive of the legislation, although “we did provide clause-by-clause criticism that the government ignored.”

While the NDP favours alternative energy, Ms. Horwath believes the Liberals have taken a ham-fisted approach in pushing their plan for wind and solar power forward. “There’s no doubt that they’ve decided on a process, and it’s created camps,” she said. “By taking away the municipality’s role, they’ve set it up for conflict, and they should be roundly criticized for that.”

In her view, “these projects are so controversial that you really need buy-in” from the communities in which they are to be located, and it must be proven that there will be no detrimental impact on the ecosystem before a development goes ahead.

Her party does believe that the province has a responsibility to curb its greenhouse-gas emissions, but the way renewable energy is currently being thrust on Ontarians “has the potential to sour people to environmentally positive change,” she said. “That’s really the shame of it all.”

Source: Manitoulin Expositor