In April, UNICEF released Fairness for Children (Report Card 13), a report that measures the depths of inequality in children's well-being across the richest countries, including Canada. Many Canadians were surprised, disappointed, saddened, even angered by what they learned in the report. We've had time to think; now it's time to act.
Canada is one of the more unequal societies for children and youth, ranking 26th of 35 nations. Gaps in health and education have widened. Life satisfaction is unacceptably low, which can have worrying consequences for mental health. Some of Canada's children are in crisis.
We seem to be building a society in which stress and competition are dampening children's sense of well-being.
Inequality limits the potential of all children. Where countries have wide gaps between the inequalities experienced by children in the middle and those at the bottom, they tend to have poorer child health, worse child life satisfaction and fewer children achieving in education across the board. When these inequality gaps are narrowed, overall child and youth well-being improves.
Canada has a way to go to move up the UNICEF Index of Child Well-being. We seem to be building a society in which stress and competition are dampening children's sense of well-being. We have one of the higher proportions of children reporting very low life satisfaction, which is associated with poor mental health, low physical activity, more risky behaviours and weaker social support. A full one quarter of Canadian children report daily symptoms of poor health, which has immediate and significant long-term impacts on many aspects of their lives. But in education and in some aspects of physical health, we've made progress. We can get to the top.
Canadian families put their children first. We ask our national institutions to do no less.
So how do we get to where we need to go? How do we make sure we're not allowing Canada's children to fall so far behind? How do we make sure we're helping each and every Canadian child live up to their potential? After all, isn't that the Canada we imagine - the Canada we can all be proud of?
First, Canada must invest earlier in children and youth. Inequalities in child well-being start to show up in the first few years of life. If we want our children to get a good start in life and have a better chance of staying well, we need to start investing in them from day one. This will save remedial costs later, where we are currently spending more.
Second, we must better understand child and youth well-being through better monitoring and better data. We can't make efficient and impactful investments unless we understand where the greatest challenges lie, for whom, and if our actions are shifting the needle toward improvement.
Third, we must put in place policies that support equitable services and outcomes for all children and youth by first asking how these decisions will affect our young people. Child Impact Assessments cost next to nothing to do and are important tools for decision making. Public policy is stronger when children's best interests are a priority and the impacts on children are specifically considered when developing policy.
Canada has long been a champion of children's rights. But the results of this Report Card show us that much more determined action needs to be taken by governments at all levels, together with philanthropic foundations, service organizations and business. Canadian families put their children first. We ask our national institutions to do no less. In the coming months and beyond, let's do all we can to ensure that each and every Canadian child has the best chance in life that we can give them.
Lisa Wolff is Director of Policy and Education for UNICEF Canada.
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