Marc Garneau

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Marc Garneau

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After 21 years, a Canadian children’s commissioner is long overdue

As one of the world’s most affluent nations, Canada has the resources to give every Canadian child the right start in life—it just needs the political will.

By MARV BERNSTEIN |
Published: Monday, 10/01/2012 3:41 pm EDT
The Hill Times

 

Liberal MP Marc Garneau is sponsor of the private member’s bill, C-420, an act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young Persons in Canada.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

 

TORONTO—Almost 21 years have passed since Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on Dec. 13, 1991. By ratifying the Convention, Canada accepted the responsibility to ensure that every child grows up healthy, educated and protected, as well as the companion obligation to establish the office of a national Children’s Commissioner. While Canada is a wonderful country for most of its children, some children falling under federal jurisdiction are falling farther behind—such as our aboriginal and immigrant children, as well as those living in poverty and involved in the youth criminal justice system.

As one of the world’s most affluent nations, Canada has the resources to give every Canadian child the right start in life—it just needs the political will. The call for a national children’s commissioner, Bill C-420, is of critical importance to ensure that no child is left behind.

While children’s rights have been advanced in some important areas over these past two decades, sadly there have been too many missed opportunities by Canadian governments of different political stripes to introduce legislation to establish a national children’s commissioner, even though there have been many calls to do so. During this time, close to 60 other countries have established specialized national offices for children, many of which are federal states like Canada.

More than a decade ago, a report prepared for the Canadian government, “A Commissioner for Canada’s Children,” stated that “the time now appears to be right for the Government of Canada to solidify its promises to children and their families by creating an independent officer of Parliament.” In 2003, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended to Canada that such an office be established at the federal level. This recommendation has since been reaffirmed on two occasions within Canada by the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights—first in its landmark study on the implementation of children’s rights in Canada in 2007, called “Children: The Silenced Citizens,” and then in its more recent 2011 report, “The Sexual Exploitation of Children in Canada: The Need for National Action.”

As recently as this past week in Geneva, the United Nations  Committee on the Rights of the Child asked the Government of Canada when it intends to establish a federal ombudsperson or advocate for children. In its review of Canada’s implementation of the convention, the committee noted the lack of sufficient advocacy for children in the immigration system and in other areas of federal jurisdiction.

The introduction of Bill C-420, an Act to Establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young Persons in Canada, in our federal Parliament this past May provides the Canadian government with another opportunity to do the right thing for our Canadian children and young people. This is a critical moment in time, as we near the point in the coming weeks when the bill will be voted upon at the conclusion of second reading and debate. We cannot afford to see another opportunity slip away. A generation of children has already grown to adulthood since Canada’s ratification of the Convention without the benefit and support of a national Children’s Commissioner. In that period, we have not seen the kind of focus on children that we have on other Canadians.

Despite positive steps from successive governments, the poverty rate among children is higher than the average rate among Canadians. This may not be the case if we had a national Children’s commissioner influencing public policy and elevating the voices of young Canadians. We all have a stake in making sure that the next generation of Canadian children will have this independent advocate to champion their interests and views, and promote their rights.

While the very best scenario would be a strong commitment by all political parties to enact legislation to establish a national Children’s Commissioner’s Office, at the very least, UNICEF Canada encourages all political parties to support the bill’s passage at second reading and referral to Committee for a thorough examination of the bill. This would provide parliamentarians from various parties with the opportunity to convene hearings and hear from international experts, provincial and territorial child and youth advocates, child-serving organizations, and most importantly, directly from children and young people themselves. Ideally, the amended bill could then proceed through both Houses with the very best collective input. If, however, the government felt that it could not support even an amended bill, it could still fulfill its international obligations by introducing its own bill to establish a national children’s commissioner, as was recently done in Australia.

At UNICEF Canada, we believe that the well-being, best interests and rights of Canada’s seven million children and young people are a common concern for all parliamentarians. We are optimistic that support for an independent children’s commissioner will cross all party lines. In particular, we are hopeful that Bill C-420 will pass second reading and receive due consideration so that Canada’s children won’t have to wait another generation for their right to a national Children’s commissioner.

            Marv Bernstein is chief adviser, advocacy, UNICEF Canada and former children’s advocate for Saskatchewan.

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