08/12/2013 07:41 EDT | Updated 10/12/2013 05:12 EDT

The Youth That Canada Leaves Behind

Canada prides itself on its youth. We score sixth on the Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development's international evaluations of the education of 15-year-olds around the world. But some students are missing from these evaluations: the test is not administered to First Nations students, or students with intellectual disabilities, or newcomers learning English or French, or incarcerated youth. How many young people are we going to sweep under the rug?

Monday, August 12 is International Youth Day, an occasion for parents, educators, and others to celebrate the achievements and potential of children and teenagers.

Canada prides itself on its youth. Every day, we learn of the accomplishments of remarkable young people. Older people can feel that our world will be left in very good hands. In part, we can thank Canada's excellent education system. We score sixth on the Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development -- OECD's -- international evaluations of the education of 15-year-olds around the world. Our 15-year-olds excel in tests on language, mathematics and science. This is pretty impressive for a country that also prides itself on diversity and multiculturalism.

But something may be missing from the OECD evaluations. Where, for example, is the young people's civics education demonstrated? How strong is their knowledge and understanding about rights and freedoms? And perhaps more troubling, how strong is ours? While I want very much to celebrate Canada's youth, I cannot help but be very worried for those among them who are most vulnerable in this country.

Recently, a group of high school principals from Germany came to Canada to find out what our education system is doing right. Among other things, they were impressed by the mass of legislation that is designed to ensure our students receive equal treatment under the law. From the Multiculturalism Act to federal and provincial Human Rights Codes, to the obligation schools have to provide equitable education, people in Canada have come to expect that the youth in our country are not only well educated, but also well protected from discrimination.

But are they?

Who are the 15-year-olds whose test scores create Canada' excellent educational rating? Well, we know who they are not. The OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test is not administered to First Nations students educated on reserves. It is not administered to students with intellectual disabilities, to newcomers who do not have a good command of English or French, nor to incarcerated youth.

Do we leave these vulnerable young people out because we fear they could bring the average scores down? Are we less concerned about the quality of their education? Do we leave them out because we, as adults, have not learned what it means to be citizens and rights holders?

We take pride in our laws that protect everyone's rights and everyone's equality before the law, but what is really happening? The Aboriginal, the disabled, the newcomers, and the incarcerated young people whose voices are rarely heard are the very same young people who are not represented on the OECD evaluations.

Last week, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth released a report on the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre. It comes to the troubling conclusion that the experiences of some incarcerated youth do not come close to meeting Canada's obligations under its own laws or those guaranteed under the UN convention on the rights of the child to which Canada is a signatory. Some incarcerated young people, all between 12 and 18 years of age, complain of racism, violence, and insufficient food. Many complain about a lack of access to the provincial advocate and to educational programs.

The majority of these young people are awaiting trial. They stand accused but have not yet been convicted. They are innocent under the law and they are children under the law. These young people are also rights holders. Just like everyone else in this country, they are to be treated equally and fairly. Even when convicted of criminal activity, even when incarcerated, they remain rights holders. If we don't understand this and teach this to all of our young people, we are on a dangerous path.

This is an example of what can happen when we fail to teach and to understand what it takes to be a truly educated person. The failure to understand human rights and their complexities leads to the mistreatment and the silencing of the most vulnerable people in our society.