She’s been a tireless advocate for child welfare in the province of British Columbia for the past decade.
She’s provided a voice to the voiceless, challenged the status quo, and demanded better treatment for youth in care.
Mary-Ellen Turpel Lafond reflects on her leadership as B.C.’s first independent child and youth representative, and what her plans are for the future.
The former Saskatchewan provincial court judge turned B.C. Child and Youth watchdog has released 93 reports over the past 10 years, issuing almost 200 recommendations to help improve the lives of B.C.’s most vulnerable young people.
Time Magazine has twice bestowed honours upon Turpel-Lafond, naming her one of the ‘100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow’ in 1994, and one of the ‘Top 20 Canadian Leaders for the 21st Century’ in 1999.
After serving two five-year terms, Turpel-Lafond’s service as B.C.’s independent child and youth representative has come to an end.
As one of the great leaders on social issues facing our province, Turpel-Lafond looks back on her legacy.
Leading through team building & promoting unity
Turpel-Lafond describes her leadership style as one focused on working together with others.
“I think I take a “pretty woman” centered approach which is focused on equality and unity seeking, working with people, building strong teams, team building, respect for everyone on a team is a crucial part of it, and having a high degree of accountability and focus on the requirement of outcomes.”
The bi-partisan selection committee is currently searching for Turpel-Lafond’s replacement, which will undoubtedly be a tough position to fill.
So what kind of personality traits does she believe are essential to successful as a child and youth representative?
“There [are] two concepts. You can’t be fearful that it’s got to be a high-profile public role and it’s a role that is intentioned with some pretty powerful forces in the province, like for instance politically elected individuals who may wield a fair amount of authority that may be sometimes in conflict with systems that used to be very close.
So you can’t be fearful, that is very important, so courageous, ethical, and open leadership that is able to spend time speaking to the press and the public.
The other side is it has to be leadership qualities where people are not seeking personal favours. And more importantly on the side of values, a real connection and compassion for children and young people and a willingness to go where they are, and go to where they are and listen to them.”
A changing role over the past decade
Turpel-Lafond has been working to represent and protect children in B.C. for 10 years, and in that time she’s seen her role develop. She says significant change has been prompted during her time as a ‘watchdog,’ as well as a deeper understanding of the issues at hand by the public and an expectation for accurate information.
She also says her presence in the community has made a huge leap forward over time.
“When I first became representative, I wasn’t even allowed to meet with the staff on the front lines, I was forbidden from doing so. So I travelled all over the province, met with them on their personal time in the evening in a hotel after they had worked a full day in places like Terrace, Quesnel and elsewhere. Today it is very rare that I would ever be prohibited from going to an office. People are freer about speaking up about what is happening.”
After so many years on the front lines for B.C.’s youth, it’s time for Turpel-Laford to focus on her next steps.
She says that it’s important for her to leave the public spotlight and not comment on whatever issues may appear while the public seeks a new representative.
“If the microphone goes silent and they don’t hear anything for a period of time, I hope they will push hard for a new representative. And for me personally, I have four children, and they have reminded me to say the government can get another representative, but there is only one mom. So my job now is really just to celebrate with my kids.”
But while she’s embracing her role as a mother, she hopes the next representative takes the role as seriously, and with as much passion, as she did.
“I am closing my office, I am hoping that it is an office where the dust doesn’t collect. I hope another person will come in, pick up that mantle and keep the work going and remember that we really do express our love and our value of our own society by how much we can support children and especially children who have the greatest needs at any given time.”