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Rob Shaw: Minister Mitzi Dean runs out of resets

The ongoing stumbles of the former children’s minister finally caused the premier to lose his patience
Mitzi Dean was demoted from her role as children's minister as part of a Monday morning mini cabinet shuffle | Submitted

When newly minted Premier David Eby bailed out Children’s Minister Mitzi Dean just over a year ago, reversing the biggest scandal in her ministry and giving her a second chance in cabinet, he had a word for it: Reset.

“My hope here is that we have a reset, where parents are reassured that they’ll get the services for kids that they need,” he said at a hastily arranged press conference on Nov. 25, 2022, to halt changes to child autism funding that had enraged parents.

“We don’t want those parents to face any more stress. We’ve been listening, and government is responding.”

On Monday, Eby announced reset No. 2 for the beleaguered ministry. This time, it involved Dean herself.

“We've reached together the reluctant decision to make a significant reset at the ministry, with a new minister and a new deputy minister so that we can continue to move forward,” said Eby.

Dean had squandered several lifelines and most of her political capital in the subsequent 14 months since the premier’s initial reprieve. She failed to turn the page on a bitter war with parents of autistic kids. And she alienated First Nations leadership over a lack of action on several horrific cases of abuse against Indigenous children.

“We’ve been calling for her resignation for six months,” BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said Monday. “She’s been, frankly, a disaster.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to ask whether Eby made a mistake in giving Dean a second chance.

He showed an unusual amount of what was either loyalty, or stubbornness, in choosing to keep her in the role in his inaugural cabinet. Almost nobody but Eby understood the move.
“I’m really glad to see Minister Mitzi Dean taking on what is a very challenging portfolio,” Eby said on cabinet day in November 2022. He piled on adverbs like “fearlessly” and “courageously” in describing the way Dean tackles her ministry work.

On paper, at least, Dean looked like she could have been the perfect children’s minister.

A former social worker, she went on to run the Pacific Centre Family Services Association in Greater Victoria, which provided services for children, families and seniors who were victims of trauma, violence or mental health issues. She knew the ministry, because she’d lived it as a worker and service provider.

But the children’s ministry is a notoriously difficult file. Cases of horrible abuse and death highlight complex gaps in the fragile child welfare system. The ministry must not only fix them, but be seen to be fixing them, to hold public confidence in the system. Dean did neither.

By the time 2023 ended, the First Nations Leadership Council and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs had lost confidence in Dean and called publicly for her resignation. Much of it concerned the horrific case of two Fraser Valley foster parents who tortured two young Indigenous children, causing one to die.

Dean couldn’t explain what went wrong, or what she was doing to prevent it from happening again. It was not uncommon to turn on the news, or browse the headlines, and find her stumbling through an interview, unwilling to answer simple questions or concede obvious points about her ministry’s failings.

For a time, New Democrats tried to mount the defence that Dean was boxed in by confidentiality provisions, restrictions on cases before the court, and other unconvincing excuses. But the NDP had savaged previous BC Liberal children’s ministers on the same grounds. The defence went nowhere.

Dean’s ministry was also the subject of several damning reports, such as one from B.C.’s representative for children and youth accusing the ministry of discriminatory funding practices against Indigenous child welfare services.

Green MLA Adam Olsen spent successive question periods this fall urging Dean to quit for the good of the system, so that it could be rebuilt into something with more confidence. Dean simply stood and read lines from her briefing book in response.

Eventually, Olsen switched to calling for her to be fired, saying she was incapable of delivering the necessary changes.

“We were very clear there needed to be new leadership,” Olsen said Monday. “But the most important point here is that the new minister be given the mandate to be able to go in and create a child welfare system that we can finally be proud of in this province. And so my hope is that the premier is empowering the new minister to be able to do that.”

Early signs indicate Eby may be doing just that. He appointed Grace Lore as the new Minister of Children and Family Development, promoting her from minister of state for childcare. He also shuffled out deputy minister Allison Bond, the ministry’s top civil servant, and herself a lightning rod for critics. Together with Dean, the moves represent a wholesale change of leadership at the children’s ministry.

Dean’s demotion also showcases a new line for the performance of Eby’s cabinet ministers, and a new limit on the premier’s patience.

Think of it as the two-reset rule. In the first reset, the premier helps you solve your ministry’s problems. In the second reset, you are the problem.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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