THE BLOG

Canada Needs to Reaffirm Its Commitment to Children

10/06/2015 08:06 EDT | Updated 10/06/2016 05:12 EDT
Valueline via Getty Images
School children raising their hands in class

It's been nearly 25 years since Canada signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, agreeing to protect and ensure the rights of our youngest citizens. Yet there is still no formal mechanism to hold the government accountable for the way it treats its youngest citizens.

We know what needs to be done: A 2007 Senate committee on human rights recommended that Canada establish an independent child and youth commissioner. In 2012, a private member's bill to do just that was defeated in the House of Commons.

Every day, Canadian children experience poverty, abuse, neglect, preventable diseases, and unequal access to quality health services and education. At the root of many of these problems is public policy that does not put the needs of children first. A federal commissioner would shine a light on these inadequacies, and press for change particularly for Aboriginal and refugee children who are most directly impacted by federal government policies and actions.

I am often reminded of little Jordan River Anderson, a young boy from Norway House Cree First Nation in Manitoba. Because of senseless government disputes over the funding of services that a non-Aboriginal child would have had access to, Jordan was deprived of the opportunity to experience life outside of a hospital setting. He passed away, in hospital, at the age of five. And while the House of Commons unanimously passed Jordan's Principle in 2007 to prevent similar cases, full and meaningful implementation has been elusive.

A tragedy such as this one reaffirms for me the urgent need for a designated federal leadership role on behalf of kids -- someone who can scan the horizon and tell us how our children are doing and where we should be. We need someone apolitical who bring us together for healthy conversations and debate about fair resources and innovative programs for kids. I want someone who cares for all Canadian children, so that we can truly be a Canada that is crazy about its kids.

Children represent a quarter of Canada's population, yet they have no vote, little capacity to speak to government or the media, and little recourse to remedy against rights violations. We do not stack up well when compared with other countries. In 2013, Canada ranked 17th out of 29 so-called rich countries for the overall well-being of its children. And when factoring in Canadian kids' responses to a life satisfaction survey, Canada dropped to the 24th position, meaning our children are among the least happy in the developed world.

Maybe, then, it should not be a surprise that Canada is one of the few industrialized countries without an independent, national voice for children -- someone who can put kids' best interests on the public agenda. More than 60 countries have dedicated offices for children, including New Zealand, England, Scotland, Austria, Norway and Sweden. There are many areas where government action directly affects the well-being of children, and national advocates can make a huge difference. New Zealand's Commissioner, for example, played an active role in raising public awareness of the levels of violence against children and promoting changes in public opinion toward physical punishment.

In Canada, a federal commissioner could monitor and report on the well-being of children, help coordinate child-related policies and programs among federal and provincial/territorial governments, investigate emerging issues and make recommendations for change, ensure that all children and youth benefit from the same quality of life, identify gaps in investments for children, raise public awareness about children's well-being, and listen and speak for children at the national level -- especially when laws are being passed.

Investments in the health and well-being of children more than pay for themselves over time. In fact, investments in early childhood have been shown to yield benefits in academic achievement, crime reduction, and labor market success. The cost of a commissioner would be small compared with the costs of failing to protect the rights of children and youth.

Every nation wants the best for its children. Their well-being is a shared responsibility among families, communities, public institutions and governments.

This election campaign has the potential to be a turning point -- an opportunity for the next federal government to reaffirm its commitment to future generations. The Canadian Paediatric Society urges the next leader to immediately establish an independent commissioner -- ensuring that children's rights and well-being receive the attention they deserve.

Robin C. Williams, MD is President of the Canadian Paediatric Society

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