Do It for the Kids
Why We Urgently Need a National Children’s Commissioner
Right now, 5.6 million children have no representation at the federal level of government in Canada.
Appointing an independent national children’s commissioner to advocate on their behalf would go a long way towards ensuring that their rights are protected and their interests are looked after.
On May 3, Liberal Member of Parliament for Westmount—Ville-Marie Marc Garneau introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to do just that. If passed, the bill will create a new Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young Persons.
When we think of marginalized groups underrepresented in Parliament, we often think of women, visible minorities, immigrants and Aboriginal Peoples. We usually don’t think of the huge portion of the population under the age of 18.
Children aren’t able to vote, join a political party, lobby the government or fund advocacy groups. When gauging public opinion, polling companies aren’t interested in knowing what children have to say. It’s with good reason that the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights called children “the silenced citizens” in 2007.
There are already children’s advocates or ombudspersons in most provinces and territories. As adoption, healthcare, daycare and education are under provincial jurisdiction, the provincial advocates are already responsible for monitoring and reporting on a lot of the areas of government policy that affect children the most.
But it would be wrong to say that a children’s commissioner at the federal level isn’t necessary, or would have nothing to do.
The federal government has jurisdiction over refugee and immigration policy, divorce law, the Criminal Code, the juvenile justice system and aboriginal issues—all areas where government policy have a considerable impact on children.
For instance, a national children’s commissioner might have something to say about the fact that the Criminal Code still defines spanking as a legitimate form of punishment.
Research now shows physical punishment can lead to more aggressive behaviour by the child and even cause mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Government policy simply hasn’t kept pace with the scientific evidence.
A commissioner would undoubtedly take issue with Canada’s treatment of aboriginal children. First Nations Canadians have long argued that aboriginal schools are critically underfunded compared to their provincial off-reserve counterparts. Aboriginal schools receive about a quarter less funding per student than non-aboriginal schools, and only half of First Nations youth graduate from high school.
Equally in the bull’s-eye of a children’s commissioner would be the federal government’s new tough-on-crime approach in dealing with juvenile delinquents. The Globe and Mail called the plan “jail-intensive.”
Criminologists and judges have said the plan is unproven and illogical.
Some of the provincial children’s advocates have themselves admitted they also need a federal counterpart to coordinate their efforts and give the inter-provincial Canadian Council on Child and Youth Advocates some much needed purpose and direction.
The first debate on Garneau’s bill was last Tuesday. Ironically, the low-key but nevertheless important debate was largely overshadowed by the announcement by Justin Trudeau that he will enter his party’s leadership race. Trudeau is the Liberal critic for youth issues.
During the debate, MPs for the New Democratic Party came out in support of the bill, whereas the Conservatives said they were against it.
Claiming that the position of Children’s Commissioner would be redundant given the variety of working groups and committees that already look at children’s issues, the Conservatives said there simply wasn’t enough money to create another independent watchdog.
“Our first concern with the bill is related to the potential costs,” said Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice in the House of Commons. “It would be difficult to justify creating another layer of bureaucracy for reporting and monitoring purposes in this current climate of fiscal restraint.”
The hypocrisy of the Harper government apparently knows no bounds. This so-called “fiscally responsible” government is, after all, the very administration that created a new, completely toothless mining watchdog in October 2009.
The watchdog was supposed to hold Canadian mining corporations accountable for their abuses abroad. Instead, two years after its creation, it had only received two complaints, and it was only able to follow up on one of those complaints; companies can choose not to participate in its voluntary investigations.
To add insult to injury, this powerless Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor—more appropriately called a “bogus PR job” by Toronto-based lawyer Murray Klippenstein in an interview with CBC—has cost taxpayers no less than $650,000 annually since its creation.
To say that we don’t have the resources to fund a new children’s commissioner is not only ludicrous, but downright insulting. If the Conservatives found the means to whitewash our mining industry, they can surely fund a commissioner’s office to look after the most vulnerable and voiceless among us.
Non-governmental organizations have argued we need a national children’s advocate for years. The United Nations has also called for Canada to create such a position.
On Sept. 27, the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child told Canada that it needed to “raise the bar” on how it deals with children’s issues. The federal government went before the committee to defend its progress in meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The committee was unimpressed by our country’s 127-page report, which it called inadequate and lacking in clear statistics that prove our policies are succeeding.
Evidently, there’s a need for a national children’s commissioner to advocate on behalf of Canada’s children, and to monitor and report on Canada’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We shouldn’t accept that “fiscal restraint” prevents us from giving our children and their interests adequate representation at the federal level.
This shouldn’t be a partisan political issue. The House of Commons needs to unanimously vote in favour of the Commissioner for Children and Young Persons in Canada Act.
For the next generation, the consequences of not doing so are simply too great.