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Aboriginal agency says B.C. government shifting blame in foster teen's death

First Nations Summit leader Cheryl Casimer, right, comments on the death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, who died at an Abbotsford motel while in foster care, after the Youth Matters conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Listening behind her are Sto:lo First Nation Grand Chief Doug Kelly, from left, chair of the First Nations Health Council, Scott Clark, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement (ALIVE) society, and Ernie Crey, President of the North West Indigenous Council.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
September 30, 2015 - 8:30 AM

VANCOUVER - British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is facing mounting criticism for accusing an aboriginal agency of making a "real mistake" that led to the death of a young man in government care outside a hotel.

The agency, First Nations leaders and the provincial children's representative all decried the premier's comments, which she made while a review of the death is still underway.

"We're walking through fire here and we need to walk through it together," said Gwen Point, board chair of the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society.

"You can't turn around and blame somebody for something. Everybody's got to take responsibility."

The premier told reporters on Friday the agency violated policy when it didn't tell the Children's Ministry that 18-year-old Alex Gervais was being housed alone in an Abbotsford hotel.

While Clark added there shouldn't be a rush to judgment until all the facts are known, she said the agency's "mistake" had tragic outcomes and promised it would face consequences.

The teen fell from the hotel's fourth-floor window on Sept. 18. Children's representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said it's believed the young aboriginal man killed himself.

In response to the premier's comments, Turpel-Lafond said the province bears responsibility for handing off Gervais to an under-funded agency after it closed his group home for health and safety reasons.

"(The agency) got nothing special to meet the needs of this young person. They had nowhere to put him," she said. "If you're going to point one finger at this agency, you should be well-aware that there are four pointing right back at you."

The Fraser Valley agency is one of several in B.C. authorized to provide child protection services through an agreement with the province.

The agency has faced controversy in the past, including in 2002 when two-year-old Chassidy Whitford was killed by her father while under its protection. A provincial review found the girl was allowed to continue living with the man despite unexplained injuries.

Doug Kelly, one of the agency's founders and now chair of the First Nations Health Council, said the organization had been improving over the past decade but the premier's "ill-advised" comments would hurt that progress

"It's a sham. It's a joke. It's a travesty. It's politics of the worst kind around the death of a child, and the premier is ultimately responsible for that," he said.

Clark did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She is expected to face questioning on the issue from the Opposition New Democrats in the legislature on Wednesday.

Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux has dismissed the NDP's demands that she resign. Her ministry has been plagued by controversies, including the drug overdose death of a 19-year-old aboriginal teen, identified only as Paige, who had recently aged out of the care system.

The ministry said in a statement Tuesday that it has clear procedures that staff at delegated agencies are expected to follow and the review will determine whether that was done.

The Fraser Valley society called on the ministry to work with it to prevent similar tragedies. It demanded proper residential placements for youth who need extensive support, with a strong aboriginal healing focus and trained First Nations staff.

One aboriginal leader, Cheryl Casimir of the First Nations Summit, said that ultimately the people responsible for handling Gervais's file should face criminal charges.

"It can't just keep happening again. It's like these kids mean nothing to anybody. They mean nothing to this ministry, to this government," she said.

"If they did mean something, we wouldn't be finding ourselves in this situation again."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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