10/06/2015 08:06 EDT | Updated 10/06/2016 05:12 EDT

Canada Needs to Reaffirm Its Commitment to Children

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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



  • Ahmad, 7 years old
    Horgos/Roszke. Even sleep is not a free zone; it is then that the terror replays. Ahmad was home when the bomb hit his family’s house in Idlib. Shrapnel hit him in the head, but he survived. His younger brother did not. The family had lived with war as their nearest neighbor for several years, but without a home, they had no choice. They were forced to flee. Now Ahmad lays among thousands of other refugees on the asphalt along the highway leading to Hungary’s closed border. This is day 16 of their flight. The family has slept in bus shelters, on the road, and in the forest, explains Ahmad’s father.
  • Tamam, 5 years old
    Azraq. Five-year-old Tamam is scared of her pillow. She cries every night at bedtime. The air raids on her hometown of Homs usually took place at night, and although she has been sleeping away from home for nearly two years now, she still doesn’t realize that her pillow is not the source of danger.
  • Shehd, 7 years old
    Shehd loves to draw, but more recently, all of her drawings have had the same theme: weapons. “She saw them all the time, they are everywhere,” explains her mother when the little girl sleeps on the ground alongside Hungary’s closed border. Now she does not draw at all. The family brought neither paper nor crayons with them on their flight. Shehd does not play anymore either. The escape has forced children to become adults and share concern for what happens in an hour or a day. The family has had difficulty finding food during their wandering. Some days, they have had to make do with apples they were able to pick from trees along the road. If the family had known how hard the journey would be, they would have chosen to risk their lives in Syria.
  • Fatima, 9 years old
    Norberg, Sweden. Every night, Fatima dreams that she’s falling from a ship. Together with her mother, Malaki, and her two siblings, Fatima fled from the city Idlib when the Syrian national army senselessly slaughtered civilians in the city. After two years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, the situation became unbearable and they made it to Libya where they boarded an overcrowded boat. On the deck of the boat, a very pregnant woman gave birth to her baby after twelve hours in the scorching sun. The baby was a stillbirth and was thrown overboard. Fatima saw everything. When the refugee’s boat started to take on water, they were picked up by the Italian coastguard.
  • Shiraz, 9 years old
    Suruc. Shiraz, 9, was three months old when she was stricken with a severe fever. The doctor diagnosed polio and advised her parents to not spend too much money on medicine for the girl who ”didn’t have a chance.” Then the war came. Her mother, Leila, starts crying when she describes how she wrapped the girl in a blanket and carried her over the border from Kobane to Turkey. Shiraz, who can’t talk, received a wooden cradle in the refugee camp. She lies there. Day and night.
  • Mohammed, 13 years old
    Nizip. Mohammed, 13, loves houses. Back home, in Aleppo, he used to enjoy walking around the city looking at them. Now, many of his favourite buildings are gone, blown to pieces. Lying in his hospital bed, he wonders whether he will ever fulfill his dream of becoming an architect. – The strangest thing about war is that you get used to feeling scared. I wouldn’t have believed that, says Mohammed.
  • Ralia, 7 and Rahaf, 13 years old
    Beirut. Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13, live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. Along with their father, they have been sleeping rough for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.
  • Gulistan, 6 years old
    Suruc. There’s a difference between closing your eyes and sleeping, as six-year-old Gulistan knows. She prefers to shut her eyes and just pretend, because every time she really falls asleep, the nightmares start. – I don’t want to sleep here. I want to sleep at home, she says.
She misses the pillow she had in Kobane. Sometimes she lies against her mother and uses her as a pillow.
  • Moyad, 5 years old
    Amman. Moyad, 5, and his mother needed to buy flour to make a spinach pie. Hand in hand, they were on their way to the market in Dar’a. They walked past a taxi in which someone had placed a bomb. Moyad’s mother died instantly. The boy, who has been airlifted to Jordan, has shrapnel lodged in his head, back and pelvis.
  • Sham, 1 year old
    Roszke/Horgos. In the very front, just alongside the border between Serbia and Hungary by the 4-meter-high iron gate, Sham is laying in his mother’s arms. Just a few decimeters behind them is the Europe they so desperately are trying to reach. Only one day before, the last refugees were allowed through and taken by train to Austria. But Sham and his mother arrived too late, along with thousands of other refugees who now wait outside the closed Hungarian border.
  • Amir, 20 months
    Zahle Fayda. Amir, 20 months, was born a refugee. His mother believes her son was traumatized in the womb. “Amir has never spoken a single word,” says Shahana, 32. In the plastic tent where the family now lives, Amir has no toys, but he plays with whatever he can find on the ground. “He laughs a lot, even though he doesn’t talk,” says his mother.
  • Lamar, 5 years old
    Horgos, Serbia. Back home in Baghdad, the dolls, the toy train, and the ball are left; Lamar often talks about these items when home is mentioned. The bomb changed everything. The family was on its way to buy food when it was dropped close to their house. It was not possible to live there anymore, says Lamar’s grandmother, Sara. After two attempts to cross the sea from Turkey in a small, rubber boat, they succeeded in coming here to Hungary’s closed border. Now Lamar sleeps on a blanket in the forest, scared, frozen, and sad.
  • Abdul Karim, 17 years old
    Athens, Greece. Abdul Karim Addo has no money left. He bought a ferry ticket to Athens for his last euros. Now he spends the night in Omonoia Square, where hundreds of refugees are arriving every day. Here, smugglers are making big money arranging false passports as well as bus and plane tickets to people in flight – but Abdul Karin is not going anywhere. He is able to borrow a telephone and call home to his mother in Syria, but he is not able to tell her how bad things are. “She cries and is scared for my sake and I don’t want to worry her more.” He unfolds his blanket in the middle of the square and curls up in the fetal position. “I dream of two things: to sleep in a bed again and to hug my younger sister.”
  • Walaa, 5 years old
    Dar-El-Ias. Walaa, 5, wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the refugee camp, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.
  • Iman, 2 years old
    Azraq. Iman, 2, has pneumonia and a chest infection. This is her third day in this hospital bed. 
– She sleeps most of the time now. Normally she’s a happy little girl, but now she’s tired. She runs everywhere when she’s well. She loves playing in the sand, says her mother Olah, 19.
  • Abdullah, 5 years old
    Belgrad, Serbia. 
Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days, he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade.
 He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. “He is still in shock and has nightmares every night,” says his mother. A bdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him.
  • Esra, 11, Esma, 8, and Sidra, 6 years old
    Majdal Anjar. When Selam, 37, puts Esra, 11, Esma, 8, and Sidra, 6, to bed, she takes comfort from the knowledge that her children are safe and won’t come under attack during the night. What saddens her is the fact that they constantly dream about their father, who disappeared after being abducted, and wake up distraught. – I often dream that Daddy is bringing me candy, says Sidra.
  • Fara, 2 years old
    Azraq. Fara, 2, loves soccer. Her dad tries to make balls for her by crumpling up anything he can find, but they don’t last long. Every night, he says goodnight to Fara and her big sister Tisam, 9, in the hope that tomorrow will bring them a proper ball to play with. All other dreams seem to be beyond his reach, but he is not giving up on this one.
  • Juliana, 2 years old
    Horgos, Serbia. 
It is 34 degrees Celcius. The flies crawl on Juliana’s face and she shifts uneasily in her sleep. Juliana’s family has been walking through Serbia for two days. This is the latest phase of a flee that started three months ago. The girl’s mother lays her thin shawl over her daughter on the ground. Fatima calms down.
 A few meters away from their resting place, feet are tramping by in a never-ending flow of people. It is the end of August and Hungary is about to barricade themselves with barbed wire to shut out this stream of refugees. But for a few more days, it is possible to pass through the border city of Horgos. As soon as evening comes, Juliana’s family will go for it.
  • Maram, 8 years old
    Amman. Eight-year-old Maram had just come home from school when the rocket hit her house. A piece of the roof landed right on top of her. Her mother took her to a field hospital, and from there she was airlifted across the border to Jordan. Head trauma caused a brain hemorrhage. For the first 11 days, Maram was in a coma. She is now conscious, but has a broken jaw and can’t speak.
  • Mahdi, 1,5 years old
    Horgos/Roszke. Mahdi is one and one half years old. He has only experienced war and flight. He sleeps deeply despite the hundreds of refugees climbing around him. They are protesting against not being able to travel further through Hungary. On the other side of the border, hundreds of police are standing. They have orders from the Primary Minister Viktor Orbán to protect the border at every cost. The situation is becoming more desperate and the day after the photo is taken, the police use tear gas and water cannons on the refugees.
  • Ahmed, 6 years old
    Horgos, Serbia. It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still sitting around, formulating plans for how they are going to get out of Hungary without registering themselves with the authorities. 
Ahmed is six years old and carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.