Lawyer battles an atrocious Alberta legacy

from: edmontonsun.com

ANDREW HANON

Muriel Stanley Venne of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal women calls Robert Lee "the most courageous lawyer in Alberta."

Lee prefers to think of himself simply as a lawyer trying to do the right thing for the most vulnerable people in Alberta. But he admitted it is gratifying to "be given such wonderful recognition by the people I represent."

On Friday, the institute presented Lee with its Social Justice Award for his work on behalf of kids who suffered abuse in foster care.

Lee is spearheading a 400-name class action lawsuit against the Alberta government, which he says is ultimately responsible for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse they were subjected to while in the care of the Crown.

Aboriginal leaders have condemned Alberta's child welfare system as the next generation of residential schools, where for a century native children were taken from their families and raised in boarding schools.

Although aboriginals make up just 9% of Alberta's total population, they make up 59% of the kids in care. Last year the IAAW distributed an English study examining child-welfare data in 24 jurisdictions around the world. It found Alberta children were placed in care more commonly that most of the industrialized world.

In 2004, 8,500 kids were in care, or 111 out of every 10,000 children under 18. Ontario's rate was only 64 per 10,000, while the lowest was Japan's at 17.

In preparation for the lawsuit, Lee hired a U.S. expert to study Alberta's system. She concluded that it "fails to meet the most basic safety, permanency and well-being needs of children in foster care."

Lee argues that the system is understaffed, poorly equipped and often places children in worse situations than the ones they were rescued from.

"Honestly," Lee said prior to the award ceremony at the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, "I thought this was going to be pretty easy. I was really surprised to learn that trying to protect kids has not been something that everyone supports."

Lee was shocked to learn some of his clients, even those with criminally convicted abusers, were never told there's a compensation fund for victims.

"You assume your guardian (the government) would do everything to protect your legal rights, but nobody told the foster kids about the fund and nobody applied for them," he said. "So when I tried to help them apply, sometimes years after the fact, we were told it's too late, they should have applied sooner."

Lee says he's managed to get some of his clients compensation, but it's been a long, drawn out fight.

"These are people who are already badly damaged, scarred from their childhoods. And here they are just being re-victimized again by the same government that was supposed to protect them in the first place."

Past Social Justice Award recipients include Edmonton police Det. Freeman Taylor, who solved a 10-year-old murder of an aboriginal woman, and author Warren Goulding, who wrote Just Another Indian -- a Serial Killer and Canada's Indifference.

"In recognition of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we have dedicated this year's event to protecting our children," said Stanley Venne. "Far too often, our children are left vulnerable."

Presenting Lee's award was NDP MLA Rachel Notley, who wants an independent inquiry into the foster care system, following the deaths of two toddlers in care in less than two years.

ANDREW.HANON@SUNMEDIA.CA

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