OTTAWA - The federal government's tough-on-crime agenda is "excessively punitive" for youth and is a step backwards for Canada's child rights record, says a United Nations group.
The UN committee on the rights of the child has finished a 10-year review of how Canada treats its children and how well governments are implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In particular, the committee says Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act complied with international standards until changes were introduced earlier this year.
The Harper government's Bill C-10 — an omnibus crime bill that includes stiffer penalties for youth and makes it easier to try them as adults — no longer conforms to the child rights convention or other international standards.
Bill C-10 "is excessively punitive for children and not sufficiently restorative in nature," the committee wrote in a report published over the weekend.
"The committee also regrets there was no child rights assessment or mechanism to ensure that Bill C-10 complied with the provisions of the convention."
The committee also repeatedly expressed its concern that aboriginal and black children are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal youth are more likely to be jailed than graduate from high school, the report said.
In order to meet the standards of the UN convention, Ottawa should raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and ensure that no one under 18 is ever tried as an adult, the report said.
Authorities should also be developing alternatives to detention, writing rules to restrain the use of force against children in detention and to separate girls from boys in jail, the committee added.
Governments should determine why so many aboriginal and black children and youth are involved in the criminal justice system and figure out how to reduce the disparity, the report recommended.
The committee also chastised Canada for failing to provide equal social services to aboriginal children — especially in the realm of child welfare, an issue now before Canadian courts.
It accused authorities of "serious and widespread discrimination" in the services they offer aboriginal children, visible minorities, immigrants and children with disabilities.
"The UN joins the auditor general, leading experts and First Nations in calling on the federal government to step up to the plate and ensure equity for First Nations children," said advocate Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
"There is simply no excuse for a government to discriminate against children."
The child rights convention is a binding international treaty that Canada ratified in 1991. Signatories are obliged to defend their child rights' records and explain progress at regular intervals before a UN committee.
Canadian officials appeared before the committee two weeks ago.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejects the claim that his crime legislation does not comply with the child rights' convention, said spokeswoman Julie Di Mambro.
The legislation was amended to ensure no one under the age of 18 is detained in an adult facility, she noted.
"Our legislation reflects the need to protect society from serious and violent young offenders," Di Mambro said. "It targets the small number of violent, repeat young offenders and its measures are balanced, effective, and responsible."
Previously in the House of Commons, Conservative parliamentary secretary Bob Dechert lashed out at the UN committee because one of its members is from Syria.
"Syria, a country whose rulers are stealing the innocence of an entire generation of its children, is criticizing Canada," he said. "Imagine that.
"This is no doubt to distract from the atrocities that Syrian children are currently facing every day."
But critics say Ottawa is wrong to write off the UN committee — even if Canada is not among the worst offenders.
"You can't sign on to a treaty like the Convention on the Rights of the Child without adhering to the guidelines that it lays out," said Jaskiran Dhillon, a representative for Justice for Girls.
"It sets an international bar for what treating and taking care of your children and youth looks like. It doesn't mean that you disregard the most marginalized ... populations of your country."
The report also wants Canada to:
— Adopt a national strategy to implement children's rights, alleviate poverty and prevent violence.
— Address high levels of violence against aboriginal women and girls.
— Ensure child victims of violence have access to restraining orders and other means of protection.
— Help troubled parents take better care of their children instead of sending them into foster care.
— Ensure disabled children are not forced into segregated schooling.
— Monitor the use of drugs to treat mental conditions in children, to curtail over-medication.
— Eliminate user fees in public schools.
— Increase the availability of free or affordable daycare.
— Rehabilitate Omar Khadr.
— Stop detaining child refugee claimants.
— Act to prevent obesity among children.
Related on HuffPost:
15 Things Critics Fear In The Tory Crime Bill
Opposition parties, professionals working within the corrections and justice systems, the Canadian Bar Association and various other interest groups have raised wide-ranging concerns about the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">omnibus crime bill</a>. Here is an overview of some of their objections. (CP/Alamy)
15. Harsher Sentences For Young Offenders
Changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will impose tougher sentences for violent and repeat young offenders, make it easier to keep such offenders in custody prior to trial and expand the definition of what is considered a "violent offence" to include "creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm" rather than just causing, attempting to cause or threatening to cause bodily harm. The new legislation will also require the Crown to consider adult sentences for offenders convicted of "serious violent offences" and require judges to consider lifting the publication ban on names of offenders convicted of "violent offences" even when they have been given youth sentences. Some of the concerns around these provisions raised by some of the professionals who work with young offenders include: (Alamy)
14. Young Offenders - Naming Names
The publication of names of some young offenders will unjustly stigmatize them for life. Quebec has asked that provinces be allowed to opt out of this provision. (Getty)
13. Young Offenders - Stiffer Sentences
Stiffer, longer sentences will turn young offenders into hardened criminals and undermine any potential for rehabilitation. (Alamy)
12. Young Offenders - Minorities Take The Brunt
As with other parts of the crime bill, critics says harsher sentencing rules and increased emphasis on incarceration will <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/20/bill-c-10-omnibus-crime_n_1289536.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">disproportionately affect aboriginal</a> and black Canadians, who are already over-represented in the criminal justice system. (Alamy)
11. Young Offenders - Forget Rehabilitation
The changes shift the emphasis of the Act from rehabilitation to "protection of society," which critics say will put the focus on punishing young offenders rather than steering them away from a life of crime. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/22/crime-bill-quebec-canada_n_1107717.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Quebec, in particular, which prides itself on the success of the rehabilitative aspects of its youth justice system, has argued for stronger language prioritizing rehabilitation</a>. (Alamy)
10. Fewer Conditional Sentences
The legislation will eliminate conditional sentences, those served in the community or under house arrest, for a range of crimes, including sexual assault, manslaughter, arson, drug trafficking, kidnapping and fraud or theft over $5,000. It will also eliminate double credit for time already served. Critics say these changes will: (Getty)
9. Fewer Conditional Sentences - Spike Costs
Cost the federal and provincial justice and corrections systems millions of additional dollars a year. The parliamentary budget officer, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/28/omnibus-crime-bill-costs-conditional-sentences_n_1306528.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Kevin Page, has estimated that the average cost per offender will rise from approximately $2,600 to $41,000</a> as a consequence of the elimination of conditional sentences. (Alamy)
8. Fewer Conditional Sentences - More Trials And Hearings
- Lead to more trials as those accused of crimes will be less likely to plead guilty if they know there is no chance they will get a conditional sentence and will be more likely to take their chances on a trial. Some have predicted this will lead to greater backlogs in an already backlogged court system. - Result in more parole hearings. Page's analysis predicted that with the increase in the number of incarcerations, there will be more offenders coming up for parole, which will increase costs for federal and provincial parole review boards. A single review by the Parole Board of Canada costs an estimated $4,289, Page estimated. (Alamy)
7. Mandatory Minimums
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/22/bill-c-10-drugs-mandatory-minimums-omnibus_n_1292894.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">By far the most criticized aspect of the bill is the introduction of mandatory jail sentences for certain crimes, including drug trafficking, sex crimes, child exploitation and some violent offences</a>. Opponents of the measures have argued that this type of sentencing has been tried in other jurisdictions, most notably in the U.S., and has created more problems than it has solved. Critics say that coupled with other changes in the bill, such as increases in the maximum sentences handed down to some drug offenders and sexual predators and elimination of conditional sentences in some cases, mandatory minimums will burden Canada's prison and court systems in ways that are unfeasible, untenable and have little benefit. In particular, they argue that mandatory minimum sentences will: (Jupiter Images)
6. Mandatory Minimums - Higher Costs
Increase the costs of prosecuting and incarcerating offenders and leave fewer funds for rehabilitation programs. (Alamy)
5. Mandatory Minimums - Overcrowding
Lead to overcrowding in prisons. (Alamy)
4. Mandatory Minimums - Make Judges Less Powerful
- Remove judges' discretion to tailor sentences to the specifics of a particular case and offender and force them to apply blanket, one-size-fits-all sentences regardless of circumstances - Limit the use of alternate sentencing measures of the type currently applied to aboriginal offenders. (Alamy)
3. Mandatory Minimums - Over-Punish Drug Offenders
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/02/omnibus-crime-bill-pierre-claude-nolin_n_1316481.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Disproportionately punish small-time drug offenders and have limited effect on the drug producers, organized crime bosses and serious drug traffickers</a> the government says it wants to target. (Alamy)
2. Mandatory Minimums - What's The Point?
Have little rehabilitative effect on offenders and rather leave them more, not less, likely to re-offend. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/27/tough-on-crime-conservatives-doubt-tough-sentences_n_1115012.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill">Critics point to numerous studies showing harsher incarceration laws do not have a deterrent effect on criminals or lower crime rates</a>. (Alamy)
1. Mandatory Minimums - What Charter?
Violate provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and open up the government to legal challenges on grounds that the sentencing rules violate certain rights that offenders have under the Charter, such as the right to liberty, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. (Alamy)
10. Belém, Brazil
Pilgrims pay promises walking on knees behind the image of Our Lady of Nazareth (not in frame), during the 'Cirio de Nazare' (Nazareth Candle) celebrations, in Belem, northern Brazil, on October 09, 2011. Almost two million pilgrims participated in Brazil's biggest Catholic procession. (LUCIVALDO SENA/AFP/Getty Images)
9. Durango, Mexico
Picture taken on May 16, 2011 at the cemetery in Durango where the bodies found in several mass graves across the city will be properly buried. Durango, the capital of the Mexican state of the same name, has about 580,000 people and until recently, had not been one of the areas hardest hit by Mexico's epidemic of organized crime. But since April 11, 2011, bodies have been found in six mass graves, and the Army is continuing its search. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
8. Chihuahua, Mexico
A Mexican Army soldier escorts Noel Salgueiro Nevarez, aka 'El Flaco Salgueiro,' alleged member of the drug cartel The Pacific of Joaquin Guzman Loera, during his presentation at the headquarters of the Secretary of National Defense in Mexico City, on October 5, 2011. Nevarez was arrested during an operation of the special forces of Mexican Army in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, and according to a statement he is the responsible of the drug operations and violence in Chihuahua state. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
7. Torreón, Mexico
Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (R) of the Revolution Democratic Party (PRD) delivers a speech to supporters during a political rally in the northern Mexican city of Torreon, in Coahuila State, 15 June 2006. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
6. Caracas, Venezuela
Two men sit in front of giant portraits of women whose children were killed in Caracas, on November 19, 2011, exhibited to raise people's conciuosness on victims of violence in Venezuela. Some 52 five-meter high photographies were pasted on facades of poor and commercial areas as part of a project called 'Esperanza' (Hope), in the framework of French artist and activist JR's world project 'Inside Out', which aims to show unknown stories through the exposition of giant portraits. (LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
5. Distrito Central, Honduras
A security guard closes a gate installed in a street of Tres Caminos neighbourhood in Tegucigalpa, on December 19, 2011. Honduras has become one of the world's most dangerous countries and is likely to have the highest murder rate in the world -- 86 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Violence Observatory in Tegucigalpa, a UN-backed monitor. On average there were 20 violent deaths a day in 2011, 85 percent of them caused by shootings. (ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
4. Acapulco, Mexico
A Mexican Army soldier burns about 945 kilograms of marijuana at the headquarters of IX Militar Region in Acapulco, Guererro state, on December 8, 2011. The drug was seized to alleged members of drugs cartels who operate in the touristic port city of Acapulco. (Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
3. Maceió, Brazil
MACEIO, BRAZIL: Military policemen look at Colombian footballers during a closed-doors training session at the Corinthians de Alagoas stadium, 50 Km from Maceio in northern Brazil, 12 October 2004. (ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
2. Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
Mexican police agent looks at a man's corpse on a street in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on September 9, 2010. Twenty-four people were reported slain in a wave of multiple killings that shook Juárez over a three-hour period Thursday night, officials said. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images)
1. San Pedro Sula, Honduras
A mother cries over her son's dead body, one of nine convicts killed in a battle between convicts at the Penal Center in Pedro Sula, 240 kms north of Tegucigalpa, October 14, 2011. Honduras stands to break world records with its murder rate -- estimated at 86 per 100,000 inhabitants -- putting it ahead of war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, a study said October 13, 2010. The study by the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras said the murder rate was 43.7 per 100,000 inhabitants during the first semester of 2011, up from 36.6 for the same period last year. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)