09/11/2014 12:49 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST

How the U.N. Exists in Thunder Bay

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

No more hockey. No more swimming lessons. For 15,000 Thunder Bay families living in poverty, the proposed funding cuts in 2005 meant the end of the only affordable sports and recreation programs available to their children. The council debate was rancorous. The motion looked ready to pass. Then one councillor rose to remind his colleagues of their promise to the city's young: the Children's Charter.

Canadians are well aware of the United Nations. We know our leaders head off to New York and Geneva to vote with other world leaders on resolutions like the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, passed in 1959. But somehow these resolutions seem far removed from our daily lives. They shouldn't be. Taking global ideas and turning them into local solutions can guide Canadian cities in managing the very real issues we grapple with daily, like child poverty and homelessness.

In Thunder Bay, a city of around 100,000 citizens located in northwestern Ontario, poverty, homelessness and unemployment among young people, especially First Nations youth, are serious issues. At 19 per cent, the local youth unemployment rate is far above the national average of 14 per cent. An estimated 500 youth are homeless -- the average for other Canadian cities the same size is 350.

In 2004, a coalition of local organizations got together to propose a novel approach to help tackle the issues affecting their city's children and youth. Their idea: take the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child and make it local.

The city council unanimously passed the Thunder Bay's Children's Charter in June, 2004, setting forth ten basic rights for the children and youth of Thunder Bay, including: "to have enough nutritious food every day" and "to have a safe and comfortable place to live."

When the Charter was passed, Councillor Joe Virdiramo volunteered to serve as the city's child advocate. It was Virdiramo who rose in 2005 during the budget talks to remind his colleagues of their Charter promises, including "access to affordable recreational activities." It was one of the first direct successes for the Charter. The cuts were deferred and the kids' recreation programs saved.

In addition to helping guide city policy, Virdiramo said the Children's Charter has raised awareness about local child and youth issues. From 2005 to 2010, the city published annual reports drawing attention to key local issues like child hunger. With increased awareness came action. The first report, on food security, led to the adoption of a Food Charter, which in turn spurred a range of city-wide food programs targeting children and youth.

Unfortunately, after 2010, city officials and organizations moved on to other issues, and the Charter became little more than an old poster gathering dust on walls around City Hall. The Youth Advisory Committee that was formed in 2004 was no longer meeting; no more reports were issued; youth issues were shifted to the back burner of city priorities. Then a group of young activists got involved.

Eighteen-year-old Samantha Smith, a volunteer with Thunder Bay's Regional Multicultural Youth Council, remembers being at a meeting where the Charter was mentioned. She had never heard of it before. "My first reaction was that it was cool that we had this charter outlining the rights of children," Smith said.

For Thunder Bay youth activists like Smith, the Charter is their lever for forcing their city government to move on problems like aboriginal youth homelessness.

Smith and her colleagues are setting up meetings with city officials like Virdiramo and Mayor Ken Boshcoff to talk about the future of the Charter. "We want to see the Charter move beyond awareness to concrete action," Smith said.

We look forward to seeing what the youth of Thunder Bay will accomplish, carrying their Children's Charter in their back pocket. Perhaps it's time for all Canadians to think about what else we might achieve by taking global ideals and making them local.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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