Op-ed: Canada’s children deserve better
The following is an op-ed written by Melanie D. Janzen, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education and research affiliate with the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba. This was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Dec., 16, 2016.
News reports in Manitoba over the past few weeks have been littered with stories of our shameful treatment of children.
The Manitoba Child and Family Poverty Report Card for 2016 was released in late November, noting Manitoba has the highest child-poverty rate of any province at 29 per cent. This means more than 85,000 children in Manitoba are living in poverty, or one in every 3.5 children.
Meanwhile, the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy released a report highlighting the alarming rates of children’s mental-health problems, including rates of teen suicide at twice the Canadian average. Not surprisingly, the centre also reported these increased rates are often related to poverty, poor housing and low family income.
We also learned children held at the Manitoba Youth Centre are being unnecessarily restrained, kept in isolation and — shockingly — pepper-sprayed. Children in Manitoba are imprisoned at the highest rates in Canada, due to violent behaviour, mental-health issues and lack of foster placements. The lack of foster placements is in part due to our shameful rates of children in care, the highest in the world.
But these local examples reflect a larger problem in Canada when it comes to protecting and advocating for our nation’s children. In a country of riches, child trafficking, sexual and physical abuse (we have still not repealed the spanking law), missing and murdered indigenous girls, high incarceration rates for youth, lack of access to education and extreme poverty rates are not diminishing.
Yet the Canadian government consistently refuses to step up.
For example, the government is denying responsibility for the outcome of the disturbing policies authorizing the ’60s Scoop. And the government has still not rectified the funding inequity in supporting First Nations children on reserves, even though the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled against the government and two compliance orders have been issued.
It is thanks to the tireless work of advocates such as Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, that the government is being held to account at all.
A much more comprehensive and focused approach to caring for our country’s children is required, one where we make central the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Canada 25 years ago.
The three main themes of the convention focus on children’s protection, provision and participation. In addition to keeping children safe from torture and cruel punishment, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure children’s rights are protected and healthy environments are created for children to be safe and reach their full potential.
Rights of provision include preserving identities and providing opportunities for children’s physical, mental, spiritual and social development.
Children’s participation means that children have a right to be heard, to have opinions, to be taken seriously and to participate in decisions that concern them.
We are a long way from actualizing children’s rights. In fact, according to the KidsRights Index, Canada ranks 72nd, below Algeria, Lebanon and Colombia. We might consider following top-ranked Norway’s lead by appointing a commissioner for children, whose role is to include the opinions of young people, ensure their rights are upheld and vet laws and policies for compliance with the convention.
Imagine what might be possible for Canada’s children if we put children’s protection, provision and participation at the centre of our laws, policies and decision-making.
Imagine the improvements to children’s quality of life in education, health, welfare and justice systems.
Imagine the future health and well-being of our nation if we took the care of and investment in kids seriously.
Ensuring the protection, provision and participation of children is a collective responsibility, where the onus is on all of us, and the ultimate leadership falls to our government.
What if, this holiday season, we granted children their rights, the ones we agreed to implement and to which they are legally entitled?