Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill S-210, An Act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Youth in Canada. While I rise today as critic of this bill, as someone who has spent most of my professional life advocating for women and youth, I welcome this important and long overdue initiative. The discussion surrounding the need for a commissioner of children and youth in Canada has been happening since the late 1980s.
In 1989, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates that children have a right to, first, protection from abuse, exploitation and harmful substances. Second, the provision of health care, education, adequate standards of living. Third, participation in a society through attention to their views and perspectives.
Canada signed the convention in 1990 and ratified it in 1991. However, Canada is lagging behind its international counterparts on the implementation of many of the recommendations of this convention. Specifically, the convention recommends the creation of an office for the commissioner of children and youth, which we are now debating in this chamber 30 years later.
In 2007, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights tabled a report entitled Children: The Silenced Citizens. The committee undertook an intensive study of children’s rights and Canada’s international human rights treaty obligations, and found that the upholding of our obligations and the implementation of these treaties had not been taken seriously. To quote our former colleague, Senator Andreychuk, the then-chair of the committee, she said:
At the ground level children’s rights are being pushed to the side and even violated in a variety of situations — one only needs to take a brief survey of the issue of child poverty, or the situation of Aboriginal or special needs children to realize that this is true. The Convention has been effectively marginalized when it comes to its direct impact on children’s lives. The Committee is deeply concerned about this situation, and . . . emphasizes the importance of living up to our obligations under international human rights treaties.
It is no surprise that the committee unanimously recommended the establishment of a children’s commissioner at the federal level as one of its primary proposals.
In 2011, I was proud to propose another study to the Human Rights Committee which focused on the issue of cyberbullying in Canada, specifically regarding Canada’s international human rights obligations under Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Throughout our in-depth study, we heard heartbreaking testimony from children and parents, alarming statistics from youth advocacy groups and policy proposals geared towards meaningful solutions. Many witnesses recommended a federal independent children’s commissioner, highlighting the benefits it could provide in order to tackle cyberbullying specifically. Expert witnesses believed the establishment of this office could help encourage greater consistency among the various legislative approaches to cyberbullying. Some witnesses also suggested that a commissioner would allow for comprehensive data collection and the sharing of evidence-based research amongst the provinces, resulting in a less fragmented approach.
Perhaps most importantly, it was suggested that a children’s commissioner could “. . . work more effectively with Aboriginal peoples in terms of understanding some of the special impacts upon our Aboriginal children.”
In our final report tabled in 2013, the committee — again, unanimously — recommended the establishment of a commissioner of children and youth. In 2015, the establishment of this office was a campaign promise of the Trudeau Liberals. Unfortunately, over five years later, there has been no movement on this crucial initiative from the government, even after numerous organizations have publicly called upon the Prime Minister to appoint a commissioner, including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Council of Children & Youth Advocates.
Notably, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called for the establishment of a national child and youth commissioner who would also serve as a special measure to strengthen the framework of accountability for the rights of Indigenous children in Canada. And still, there has been no action from this government. Sadly, colleagues, it is our children who are paying the price.
Over the past decade, according to UNICEF’s rankings, Canada has slipped from twelfth to twenty-fifth place of all OECD countries in terms of child well-being. In a country like Canada, this is unacceptable.
It is worth noting some staggering statistics: One in three Canadian children experience abuse before the age of 15. One in five Canadian children live in poverty. One in three children do not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 10- to 14-year-olds in Canada and the second cause of death amongst 15- to 17-year-old youth. Only one in five Canadian children are able to access the mental health services they need, and over 25% of children in Canada are overweight or obese.
Children First Canada, a youth advocacy organization, saw Canada sliding down the ranks and began looking at what the world-leading countries are doing and what their best practices have been in terms of policy. How have they protected children’s rights, and how can they help the children in their countries thrive? They found that the common denominator was the presence of either a children’s commissioner or an ombudsperson. These offices exist in more than 60 countries around the world and are a proven and effective strategy for advancing child well-being.
As Children First Canada told the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology:
The U.K., for instance, going back several years ago, was lagging behind other OECD countries in children’s well-being. They put in place children’s commissioners in England, Scotland and Wales and established an independent office that had the mandate to promote the rights of children, listen directly to children, be able to conduct studies, hold government accountable and drive a national plan of action. In the case of the U.K., they rapidly moved up the OECD rankings for children’s well-being by well over 10 points.
The vision for the mandate of a commissioner for children and youth is broad yet centred around a few key principles. One of the primary roles for an independent federal children’s commissioner would be to listen to and involve children within their mandate, advocate for them and ensure that their voices are heard.
Perhaps equally important would be for the commissioner to be a source that children can rely upon for impartial, evidence-based information and resources. The federal commissioner would partner with provincial commissioners to help advance best practices and achieve national adoption.
It is my hope that the commissioner’s office would be tasked with evaluating the specific ways public policy impacts children and communicating those impacts to Canadians, as the specific impact on children is often not considered to the extent it should be. For example, we have all seen recently the unique challenges faced by our children and youth in the wake of COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdowns. The pandemic has shone a light on our vulnerabilities when it comes to the well-being of Canadian children.
As the Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology heard during their study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis this past spring, for 8 million children in Canada, their childhood was interrupted. The youth advocacy organizations that testified at the committee highlighted that while children have been amongst the least likely to fall seriously ill because of COVID-19, they have been most affected by the response.
Children’s Healthcare Canada noted that beyond surgical and elective procedures delivered by our children’s hospitals, many children, youth and their families continue to experience significant gaps in services. The majority of in-person visits have been postponed for children with medical complexities, as has their access to community-based services, including speech language pathology, physical therapy, occupational therapy and social work. While the disruptions were an inconvenience in the short term, many families now fear their children are experiencing an irremediable loss of functioning and are observing significant behavioural challenges, particularly in children with neurodevelopmental diseases.
Many noted the risks to healthy physical and mental development of children in the face of prolonged school and camp closures, as well as the stress of abrupt and profound changes to routines and structures. In fact, I have heard from mothers of young children, including one as young as 2 who was having a meltdown because she couldn’t see her grandparents and cousins and couldn’t go to daycare, and she couldn’t understand why.
Kids Help Phone told the committee that since March, when COVID-19 became a stark reality across Canada, Kids Help Phone saw a steady increase in interactions, with demand for their texting service up by 61% and demand for professional counselling services up by 55%.
They also noted the issues young people were contacting them about had changed. Pre-COVID-19 issues like depression and suicide were among the top reasons young people reached out. Now those reasons are eating disorders and body image; isolation; emotional, physical and sexual abuse; grief; and substance use.
Colleagues, throughout this conversation on how the government’s response has impacted youth, the need for a children’s commissioner was raised numerous times. In fact, when Senator Seidman asked the organizations for their top two recommendations for the government in the context of COVID-19, Children First Canada recommended a children’s commissioner. Kids Help Phone agreed with the recommendation, noting that children need a voice in these critical conversations. Parliamentarians were urged to consider the unique ways in which children have been impacted. Had a children’s commissioner been in place prior to the pandemic, perhaps those considerations would have been better reflected in the response.
Honourable senators, to say that the implementation of this international obligation is long overdue is truly an understatement. We, as a country, pride ourselves on being a leader on matters of human rights, but on most measurable components of child welfare, we are at or below average compared to our international counterparts.
In 2021, Canada faces its next review by the United Nations on our progress towards the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Out of respect for our international treaty obligations, we need to make sure this bill finally crosses the finish line. As Senator Moodie has said, the data is clear. This proposal has the support of the provinces and the overwhelming support of Canadians.
I want to commend Senator Moodie and her staff for all their research, hard work and dedication to this important initiative. I encourage my colleagues to support this bill so we can give our children the voice and the representation they so rightly deserve.