In 1979, Landon Pearson, the legendary children's rights activist, wrote in the report of the Canadian Commission for the International Year of the Child that "the need for a children's advocate is a very real one," and there have been a good dozen reports reiterating that point over the years.
Last week, at a public forum in Ottawa, Ms. Pearson was beating the drum anew, saying that more than ever, Canada's kids need someone to stand up for their rights, to ensure the voiceless are given a voice.
More than 60 countries worldwide have an independent commissioner for children and youth, but Canada, as it does with so many health-policy issues, studies rather than acts.
Norway, by contrast, embraced Ms. Pearson's idea and, in 1981, created the first ombudsman for children. It is no coincidence that it has among the world's healthiest children, ranking second in the UNICEF index of child well-being, while Canada comes in at a middling 17th place.
One of the campaign promises of Justin Trudeau's Liberals was to create an "Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young Persons in Canada." They even have legislation written; after all, Marc Garneau (now the Transport Minister) tabled private member's bills on this issue both in 2009 and 2012 when he was in opposition.
So why the delay?
Sara Austin, president and CEO of Children First Canada, which has been lobbying MPs and senators to remind them of the pledge, thinks the problem is one of perception.
Politicians, and the public, tend to think of Canada as a great place for kids, and that we already take good care of our children.
But the group's new report, The Kids Are Not Alright, underscores that things aren't all rosy for the country's six million children:
- With a child-poverty rate of 18.2 per cent, Canada ranks 21st of 29 OECD countries;
- With one in three children falling victim to sexual or physical abuse, we’re also 21st in the ranking of children’s overall physical and mental health;
- Our infant-mortality rate is double that of Finland, and we rank 22nd;
- 26th on the inequality index;
- 27th on child safety;
- 28th on immunization.
The position of a national child commissioner won't instantly turn those numbers around. But there is a lot to be said for having a non-partisan advocate for the only part of the population that can't vote. Creating a bully pulpit for the defence of children's rights is a way of saying kids matter.
All provinces and territories (except Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories) have a child advocate. Their role, according to the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates, 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 disputes and conduct independent investigations;
- Recommend improvements of programs for children to the government and/or the legislative assembly.
Surely, someone should be playing that role at the national level, especially when you consider that the country's most vulnerable children, including First Nations, Inuit, Métis and refugees, fall under federal jurisdiction.
The federal level is also where some of the most egregious failings are occurring. Canada is one of the only developed countries that still allows spanking. And Ottawa continues to cling stubbornly to a policy of institutionalized discrimination in the provision of services to First Nations children.
Canada signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. One of the obligations of that treaty is the government be held accountable by an independent commissioner, to ensure it does not commit this sort of human-rights abuse.
In its report, It's Time for a National Children's Commissioner for Canada, UNICEF Canada says: "The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued and included in the families and societies into which they are born."
It's time for Ottawa to measure up.