Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond raises her voice so that others can be heard

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Maryse Bernard

The introduction to Monday afternoon’s Big Thinking lecture recalled Congress 2013’s theme of “@ the edge.” Not only does this reflect the University of Victoria’s location on the West Coast, but also a commitment to addressing social challenges and inequality, promoting diversity and inclusivity, and ensuring marginalized voices are recognized.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, President of the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates, dedicates her life to exactly that. As a judge, she’s fought for the needs of young Canadians in the justice system, especially the sexually exploited and disabled. In 2006, she made history by being appointed B.C.’s first Representative of Children and Youth. More recently, the Vancouver Sun named her one of ‘B.C.’s Top 100 Influential Women’ in 2010.   

In her presentation, “Listening to the marginalized to address inequality,” Turpel-Lafond focused on Aboriginal families and their high risk of ending up in government care. She began by discussing how exactly we can listen—to truly understand the pathways of marginalization, and interact with the young people who walk them.

“How do we actually work with children?” Turpel-Lafond asked, “And how do we understand children in a way that honours the fact that they are independent humans with human rights?”

In her opinion, great children are produced by great adults. To determine what a child may need to succeed, we need to give them our time and value. Turpel-Lafond’s key to success is a solid education system that demonstrates a “fundamental belief in the furtherance of children.”

This duty doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of teachers or parents, but on society as a whole. Instead of turning to government for solutions, Turpel-Lafond suggested we work together towards educational initiatives. She called for a “national civil engagement project”.

She reminded the audience of the different reality certain families are sentenced to from birth. Children born into poverty start at a point far behind their peers. What they need is for someone to take a chance on them.

“People help form you in your thinking and your ideas,” Turpel-Lafond said. “Of course, you have to form yourself. You have to be open-minded, you have to be creative…But people take a chance and they help develop you and form you.”

A chance such as this gave wings to Turpel-Lafond’s own career. She was once a marginalized voice herself, growing up in an environment of poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. She expressed profound gratitude for the support, namely that of the Honourable John Nilson, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Justice. Nilson appointed Turpel-Lafond a Provincial Court judge in 1998.

“If you do not get up and speak–not for someone, but to give them a voice to speak for themselves–you will be silenced in your own life experiences,” she said. “It’s an attitude.”

To break a cycle, we need to get behind kids one at a time. By reaching out, we can help promote resilience and create new opportunities for the deeply marginalized. Turpel-Lafond spoke also of the intergenerational history of physical and sexual abuse in Aboriginal history–and how often a blind eye is turned.

“What does it take to say: what’s happening, what’s going on?” She asked. “Somebody should listen; they shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t happen.”

Aside from getting behind youth, Turpel-Lafond concluded with a second answer to the problem: free tuition for kids in foster care. Accessible education and a guiding hand for those who want to learn, but who are overwhelmed by the cost and application process. She offered a challenge to the conference, to see which universities and colleges will accomplish this by next year’s Congress.

“You guys are competitive…Who’s going to be the winner?”

A standing ovation hinted hopefully at a challenge accepted.


Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2013Big Thinking