It's been more than two decades since Canada signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
One of the obligations of that treaty is the establishment of an independent national Commissioner for Children and Young Persons.
Yet, Canada has no such commissioner to give voice to the voiceless.
We were reminded of this on-going failure again last week when Nunavut became the 11th jurisdiction to create such a position – Representative for Children and Youth.
The battle there was a long and vociferous one, with several elected officials arguing that creating what is essentially an ombudsman for children was somehow showing disrespect for elders – an odd argument in a territory where 32 per cent of the population is below the age of 15 (double the rate of the rest of Canada.)
The name and precise mandate varies slightly by province and territory, but according to the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates, their role is to:
- Work to ensure the rights of children and youth are respected and valued in communities and in government practice, policy and legislation;
- Promote the interest of, and act as a voice for children who have concerns about provincial government services;
- Engage in public education;
- Work to resolve the disputes and conduct independent investigations;
- Recommend improvements of programs for children to the government and/for the legislative assembly.
Why is there no one playing this role at the federal level?
Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will reiterate Canada's commitment to improving global child and maternal health at the United Nations. That's important, but so too is a domestic commitment.
There are more than seven million children and youth in Canada, one-quarter of the population.
Yet, there is no Minister of Children. No parliamentary caucus on youth issues. No independent advocate.
It is no wonder that Canada's children get short shrift in public policy. It is not a coincidence that, compared to other developed countries, Canada is a laggard on child health.
Consider these sobering stats:
- Among the world’s 21 richest nations, the United Nations ranks Canada a middling 12th on child well-being;
- In an analysis conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development of 29 OECD countries, Canada ranks 22nd preventable childhood injuries and death, 27 th on in childhood obesity and 21st in overall physical health and mental health of children.
Not a record of which we should be proud.
But better health outcomes are just one area where children need someone with a bully pulpit to come to their aid.
Consider the seemingly endless series of stories of abuse and neglect, particularly among the marginalized, like foster children and aboriginal children.
B.C. Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has done some particularly important work in this area. Her recent report Out of Sight: How One Aboriginal Child's Best Interests Were Lost, for example, tells the bone-chilling tale of a 3 ½ year-old who was shuffled between two provinces and suffered horrific abuse because of bureaucratic failings of at least three so-called child-welfare agencies.
Only one person ever spoke up for that girl and demanded answers – the Representative.
It's a striking example of why a federal Children's Commissioner is needed. Aboriginal children are one area where Ottawa clearly has jurisdiction, and a constitutional obligation to act.
In this instance, the B.C. Representative probably overstepped her jurisdictional bounds – although there were provincial agencies involved – but did so because of the void and unapologetically.
Ms. Turmel-Lafond addressed this head-on in the first words of her report: "One underlying principle applies to all child welfare practice in Canada regardless of the circumstances or jurisdiction. Everything that is done by those entrusted with protecting a vulnerable child should be done with the best interests of that child at heart. When the best interests of children are not the focus, we cannot be sure that children are safe."
The principal argument the federal government has used – under the Conservatives and Liberals alike – is that creating a Children's Commissioner would create jurisdictional squabbles and overlap. The other argument is economic, that the estimated $5-million-a-year cost for such an office is too much.
Well, jurisdiction be damned. Besides, there are several areas of federal responsibility where children and youth need protection – youth and criminal justice and divorce law to name only two. And $5-million is a good investment if it's going to offer a modicum of accountability for and protection of the most vulnerable in our society.
When Bill C-420, the private member's bill sponsored by Marc Garneau, a passionate advocate for children and youth, was defeated last year for spurious reasons, Parliamentarians abdicated their responsibilities to the Canada's children and youth.
The youngest members of society remain, in the term used by a Senate committee years ago, The Silenced Citizens.