04/19/2013 08:29 EDT | Updated 06/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Stop Ignoring Our Children's Well-being


The UNICEF report "Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A Comparative Review" is an instructive document: It tells Canadians how we compare in six areas with other developed nations. This is the second survey of its kind, with the first published in 2007. Since then, Canada has fallen from 12th to 17th place, a downward trend that is deeply concerning.

The news that we are performing relatively better on housing, education and material well-being -- if one considers 11th, 14th and 15th, respectively, out of 29 to be acceptable -- may indicate that we are moving in the right direction in these select few areas and should encourage us to do better.

However, that Canada now ranks 27th out of 29 in health and safety, child mortality and obesity should indicate that the Conservatives are taking us in the wrong direction and need to seriously reassess public policy initiatives in these areas.

For example, we know that factors contributing to high child mortality rates include the poor health status of Aboriginal children and the disturbing trend Canada-wide of low immunization rates. Where are the public education initiatives on the benefits versus the adverse effects of immunization? Where is the leadership on a national immunization program? We know that there continues to be a rise in incidence of diseases that we thought had disappeared, such as polio and drug-resistant TB. History has shown the tragedy of lost lives and disabilities caused by these diseases that rob children of their potential, and there is a clear need for action by the federal government.

On child poverty, Canada ranks in the bottom third -- in fact, 16th in the number of kids who eat breakfast daily. Evidence tells us that poverty is the single greatest determinant of lifelong health. Good nutrition and a healthy breakfast help kids get a head start and improve their ability to learn. It is inexcusable that Canada is not performing better.

We are also 21st when it comes to bullying. What are the public policy and legislative actions needed to reverse these trends? Per capita, our suicide rates are even higher than those of the United States. As we have seen with recent events, the government has clearly abdicated its leadership role and needs to take greater steps to foster safe, nurturing spaces for all young Canadians.

Surveys offer us the evaluative data we need to continue, enhance or stop public policies depending on whether they meet our desired objectives: In this case, having kids who are healthy, active, and enjoy the opportunity to thrive, learn, and become successful members of society. In a globally competitive arena, these attributes will allow them to survive, compete, and achieve.

Unfortunately, instead of valuing the UNICEF report as a tool to improve performance and build better futures for our children, the Conservatives have become wary of criticism, burying their heads in the sand and turning harsh condemnation on any who dare provide negative evidence or point out undesirable facts.

This in itself is the most worrisome trend.

This Conservative government must shoulder the blame for this downward trend in our children's well-being. They failed to implement the Mental Health Commission's recommendations or introduce a strong anti-bullying strategy. They cut funding for Inuit maternal and child health programs and have done nothing to help 50% of Aboriginal Peoples who simply do not have enough food. Despite overwhelming expert advice, the Conservatives refuse to regulate trans fats and sodium levels in processed foods or to implement the previously-agreed-upon federal-provincial strategy for active sport in children.

This UNICEF report is a call to action. It is high time the Harper Conservatives start seriously tackling these issues and stop ignoring the well-being of our children.

Child Poverty Around The World