The news stories that make us ask “How can this happen in Canada?” have hit harder this year. Especially those that concern our most vulnerable children and youth. Alarmingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are more children than ever in our country living far removed from their fundamental rights.
To offer just a few examples: Children in Neskantaga, as in many other First Nation communities, still have no safe water to drink, and the government just walked back on its promise to lift all on-reserve boil-water advisories by 2021. The number of children in Ontario languishing up to two years on waiting lists for crucial mental health supports doubled between 2017 and 2019. Young people with disabilities who age out of the child welfare system are living isolated in seniors homes and hospitals, because there is no other, more appropriate, place for them to live as they turn 18 years of age. And as in-person visits are restricted for social workers already overburdened in their caseloads, children, like Innu teen Wally Rich from Labrador, are dying within the group home and foster care systems.
Truly, how can such things happen to children here in Canada?
On National Child Day, which is celebrated on Nov. 20, I find myself thinking about Janusz Korczak. Born in Poland he was a Jewish pediatrician who established an orphanage of his own design, in Warsaw, in 1911-12. The orphanage was as much a “Republic of Children,” as it was a form of residential care: It operated with its own children’s parliament and children’s court, as well as a child-run national radio show and newspaper.
“It’s true you can’t legislate love but you can legislate the conditions in which love can flourish.”
When the Nazis invaded Poland, Korczak and the children he cared for were forced into the Jewish Ghetto. And when the Ghetto was liquidated ― when the people who lived there were sent to their death in the gas chambers ― the authorities told Korczak he could be spared due to his celebrity and work. Famously Korczak refused. There are accounts of him accompanying the children of his orphanage, calm and strong, through the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto. Dressed in their best clothes, hand-in-hand the children walked to the trains that would transport them to Treblinka. Korczak died in the gas chambers with the children in 1942.
I had the good fortune of helping to publish in English an account of a former child of Korzcak’s orphanage, by the name of Shlomo Nadal. In his nineties and living in Israel at the time, he wanted to pay homage to the orphanage and the manner in which it was run, which he believed, had saved his life.
In his book, ”Taking Root,” Shlomo recollected many things about his life in the home, such as how, from time to time, Korczak would leave the orphanage as the children were sleeping, row upon row, in their dormitory beds. He would visit bakeries to ask for donations of sweets and cake. These desserts were hard to come by in the Ghetto and far from typical fare for children like Nadal, who were alone in the world, except for having each other. On his return, before the children woke up, Korczak would place a small piece of cake on the corner of each child’s bed. Shlomo remembered the joy of finding the treat on awakening. “The cake,” he said, “tasted like love.”
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That story hit me right in the heart. It made so much sense, based on what I’d seen in my time as Ontario’s Children’s Advocate. Young people in all parts of my mandate would tell me the same thing, when asked what they needed to thrive and reach their full potential: “We need adults to listen. We need to be part of our own lives. We need to be seen as people not cases.” And, most importantly, they would say, “We need supportive, positive relationships with the adults in our lives ― genuine caring from people who believe in us.”
There was a time when I was trying to explain what the children and youth were telling me they needed to a Deputy Minister. I remember him saying to me: “Irwin what do you want me to do with this? We can’t legislate love!”
Later, on hearing about the exchange, a young person told me how to respond next time: “It’s true you can’t legislate love but you can legislate the conditions in which love can flourish.”
Like Korczak, all those years ago in war-torn Europe, this Canadian youth instinctively knew what children need most to thrive. Why do our legislators still not have a grasp on this?
We celebrate National Child Day on November 20, the anniversary of the United Nations Convention On The Rights of the Child ― the Convention that Dr Janus Korczak inspired. I believe that every right established under that convention, when afforded, increases the chance for a child to find the love that will nurture them.
You can read the full list of children’s rights here. I encourage you to go over them with the kids in your life. A poll conducted in October by Children First Canada ― the first of its kind since the return to school during the pandemic ― reveals 44 per cent of kids aged 12-17 in this country are not aware they have rights and 73 per cent don’t know what to do if their rights are violated.
In the midst of a pandemic, love has an even harder time flourishing. Existing crises are amplified within this crisis. How difficult it is today for love to flourish when some children have no safe water to drink. How difficult it is for love to flourish when some children still face racism unsupported, and the Covid-19 virus impacts their racialized community in inequitable ways. How difficult it is for love to flourish in a system that gives no child in care assurance that, pandemic or not, they will not be pushed into the maelstrom to live on their own at 18 years of age ― ready or not.
I urge you not to wait to speak up, speak out, and work to create the conditions in which love can flourish for all Canadian children: Call on your elected representatives to place children at the centre of their plans to fight the pandemic.
If Canada truly values the rights of children, we must place children at the centre of every decision. Not dollars. Children. Every time.
WATCH: How the pandemic is impacting young Indigenous people in Canada: