It takes a village

By Aaren Madden, April 2011

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond believes the most important thing Victoria can build for its kids is community.

Once when I was a child, my mother became suddenly ill. My sister and I were at school, so my younger brother Dustin set out to find her some help. He walked a block to the bus stop, waited, boarded the bus and told the driver to take him to a doctor. Dustin had just turned three at the time. With no way of knowing who this child belonged to, the flabbergasted driver drove him one stop and deposited him on the counter of the corner store—“John’s Store.” Upon seeing my brother’s familiar blond mop, John called my ailing mother. “He’ll be fine here with me,” he assured her. Dustin gleefully sat on the counter taking customers’ money until suppertime, when John brought him home, my mother now recovered. All was well (though admittedly, Mom was somewhat mortified). 

Besides being a gold nugget in our chest of family lore, this story illustrates what is possible in a community that has built strong connections. We were a low-income, single-parent family, but were taken care of by a broad, informal network of support. Everyone knew everyone else and looked out for each other’s kids. 

To Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC’s Representative for Children and Youth since 2006, that is a crucial component of healthy child development. What a city needs for its young people to thrive is that type of connection on every street. And while adults play a role in building those connections, we also benefit from listening to what children have to teach us about the same.

As an Independent Officer of the Legislature, Turpel-Lafond provides oversight for the Ministry of Child and Family Development and advocates for all kids in BC under 19, but especially those in government care (foster homes, group homes, youth custody). They are the most vulnerable of our children: most likely to face health challenges, have run-ins with the law, quit school, and need income assistance. Many of them have endured chaotic, troubled home lives. 

Turpel-Lafond’s passion and dedication are borne from overcoming similar experiences. She was surrounded by alcoholism and violence growing up on a reservation in northern Manitoba (she’s an active member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation). With much support and her own great strength, she was attending Carleton University by age 16. She has a doctorate of law from Harvard Law School, a master’s degree in international law from Cambridge University, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall. 

Her professional achievements are in equal proportion to her strong principles and adherence to them. In January she reprimanded the provincial government for its high poverty rate—the highest in the country for seven years now—and its piecemeal approach to child services in the report Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems. That report calls for a legislated end to child poverty, a move backed by The Green Party’s Elizabeth May and First Nations leaders like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. 

In 2010, she and Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall issued Growing Up in BC, a document that examines BC children’s quality of life, what they lack and where they thrive. It says that everyone in BC, from policy makers to homemakers to the kids themselves, has a role to play in making sure children of all circumstances thrive. 

So it’s no surprise when she tells me Victoria needs “communities where neighbours know each other. People talk, people are open, and the attitude from house to house is one of interest, one of support for each other, and for the fact that there are children in your neighbourhood that are growing up. You take a positive interest in their development, whether they are your children, children next door, or down the street,” she urges.

Likewise, when varied educational choices have folks driving to schools across town to pursue advantages for their child, Turpel-Lafond stresses our responsibility to our community schools. They should be vibrant places filled with activity day and night, a true neighbourhood hub. If they do not suit our needs, perhaps there are ways we can change that, since “the biggest advantage children have is being part of a community where every child does well.” Looking at things as she does from the systems level, she points out that “we should make choices to make sure our children do well individually, but the collective well-being of children will really determine the individual well-being of a child in the end.”

Kids who are grounded in their community and included in its doings benefit in many ways. In Victoria as everywhere, “kids who live in poverty have very diminished opportunities,” Turpel-Lafond notes. If neighbours know a child’s family can’t afford his participation in soccer, say, they can pool resources to help out. A child embraced by a community in this way gains “a very strong sense of belonging, a very strong sense of empathy and commitment toward others, which [means] not only do they have an opportunity to be heard, which is important, but they are part of building their community. They become citizens, if you like, in the full sense,” Turpel-Lafond explains. “That spirit of friends and neighbours is one of the most important preconditions for children to be safe and to feel connected to others.” 

Just as important as modelling and building this for kids is learning it from them. It’s a two-way street (filled with sidewalk chalk drawings, I imagine). “Something that is really quite miraculous about children is that if we let them be leaders in social relationships, we very quickly make friends with a lot of people. Many of us as adults have lost that skill,” Turpel-Lafond observes. 

She has also noticed that, just like adults, when kids are listened to and included in the creation of the city, they feel ownership of it. In 2007, when she was new to her position as Representative for Children and Youth, the City invited kids of all ages to a consultation, complete with sand and equipment. Her four kids, now fifteen, nine-year-old twins and seven, participated. “They still talk about how great it was to go into City Hall and talk about the parks,” Turpel-Lafond shares. “Now, if something’s happening in their local park or if the equipment is broken, they feel like they can call City Hall and tell them.” 

While her children gained a sense of community belonging through decidedly more official channels than my brother’s corner store adventure, the end result is similar. Now that he’s got kids of his own to share it with, he will likely be telling the tale of his epic bus journey for years to come. Like so many parents, he wants the best for them and struggles to find the time to fit in work, play, and opportunities to nurture their spirits, let alone reach out to neighbours. But knowing how much community connections can enhance our lives and help our children thrive, building them feels not only doable, but essential. Just look what the right support did for Turpel-Lafond herself.

True to his calling, Aaren Madden’s brother became a 911 operator. No one was surprised when he was recently promoted to supervisor.