Graham Thomson: Alberta human services minister tries to weather self-created storm
Published on: December 8, 2016 | Last Updated: December 8, 2016 11:28 PM MST
Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir talks about actions to improve, Alberta's child intervention system on Dec. 8, 2016, in Edmonton.GREG SOUTHAM / POSTMEDIA
If Human Service Minister Irfan Sabir is not willing to resign over his department’s bungled handling of an internal report into the death of a four-year-old girl, maybe he should resign for his performance the past two days, after the story broke.
The performance included actively avoiding the media, holding an irritatingly vacuous news conference, blaming the previous Progressive Conservative government and forming a bogus all-party investigative panel to distract attention from his performance as minister.
At the heart of the story is Serenity, the little First Nations girl who died while in government-supervised “kinship care” in 2014. The cause of death was a traumatic head injury, but she also suffered from a disturbing list of abuse including hypothermia, catastrophic malnutrition and genital bruising.
Serenity’s tragic story has gripped the Alberta legislature ever since it was disclosed by my colleague Paula Simons three weeks ago — with the opposition, led by the Wildrose, demanding answers to a litany of questions surrounding this disturbing tale.
They want to know, among other things, why nobody has been charged and why it took two years to complete an autopsy report amid complaints from Alberta’s child and youth advocate that his own investigation was stonewalled. The RCMP has been investigating, but ran into a bureaucratic brick wall of its own when it couldn’t get its hands on an internal review of Serenity’s death conducted by Children’s Services.
That report should have gone to the Mounties in 2015. It didn’t.
Frustrated Mounties eventually contacted officials in mid-November for that report, but couldn’t access it until Dec. 6.
Why the delay?
“It was an unfortunate error,” Sabir told Simons Wednesday night when she broke the story of the delayed report. “As minister, I take responsibility on behalf of the government.”
On Thursday, Sabir suggested Simons didn’t have all the facts when she wrote her column Wednesday night — that the reason the RCMP didn’t get the report for several weeks was simply due to a problem accessing the secure file online.
OK, but why did Sabir actively avoid my other colleague, Emma Graney, who was at the legislature late Wednesday night specifically to ask Sabir about details of the story and opposition calls for him to resign?
If Sabir had problems with Simons’ column, he could have corrected them then. Instead, Sabir brushed past Graney several times in the hallway outside the assembly, saying he was on a cellphone call.
Then on Thursday, Sabir held a hurried news conference to insist he will not resign.
“We have work to do and I’m not here to assign blame anywhere,” he said.
Which is the kind of response you give as a politician when people are saying you’re the one to blame. He then announced the terms of reference of a closed-door, all-party panel to improve the child intervention system: “I’m here to talk about solutions, the terms of references provided this morning and we are looking forward to working with the opposition.”
The opposition is not so keen to work with Sabir, saying he should resign and the government should call an open-door public inquiry.
Sabir said several times: “It is clear to me that we have not done enough and we have not acted fast enough,” but he wasn’t just talking about his NDP government. He was referring to the PC governments of yesterday.
Sabir was spinning himself in circles Thursday, trying to say he had done a good job. He might have inherited a broken system from the PCs, but in the past three weeks he has dropped the ball by not giving the Serenity file the kind of attention he finally gave it Thursday.
Interim PC leader Ric McIver made this simple but spot-on analysis of Sabir’s political failure: “Every minister of the Crown should know that within your ministry if there is an item so troubling that it’s the first story on the supper-hour news, it’s the front-page story in the newspaper and you’re getting hammered on it in question period every day, the minister’s job is to reach into his or her ministry and say ‘Give me that file.’ ”
Sabir apparently did that Thursday morning, finally — but it was much too late.