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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan     

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Part III: Canada’s record and prescription for progress

What Canada has done for children?

Canada has not turned a blind eye to the plight of our own and the world’s children, be they socially distressed and educationally hindered as a result of parental separation, poverty and lack of needed facilities; or, victims of crime, violence, sexual exploitation, abuse, gangs and illicit drugs; or, simply in poor physical and mental health as a consequence of living in a more challenging environment and not receiving the needed community attention; or, immigrant children separated from their families. We need only remember, at the domestic level, some of the federal policies and programs for the well-being of our children. Provinces have equivalent policies. Here is a partial list:

  1. Child tax credit and universal child care benefit program to enable parents to balance work and family life, and to facilitate early childhood development;
  2. Nationwide action program for community-based children’s organizations to deliver comprehensive and culturally appropriate intervention and prevention programs to promote the health and social development of vulnerable children under six years;
  3. Family justice services and information program to promote compliance with financial support and reduce the stress of separation and divorce on children;
  4. Youth justice fund for pilot projects to provide programming and services for youth in conflict with the law or vulnerable to gang and substance abuse;
  5. Victims fund initiative to enable child advocacy centres to adopt a collaborative approach and provide child and youth victims of crime with child-friendly settings during the investigation period and preparation for court appearances;
  6. Child and family services, head start programs, youth suicide prevention strategy, education grants and special literacy programs, and school building fund for First Nations and Inuit children on reserves and in urban and northern communities; and
  7. Services and programs for children with disabilities.

On the world stage, Canada took a leadership role in other initiatives that impact on children, such as pushing the issue of Small Arms and Illicit Weapons in All Its Aspects, which this columnist, then with the Government of Canada, presented at the United Nations General Assembly barely a decade ago. And Canada took part in the drafting and ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) nearly a quarter of a century past.

Setting the international standards

Indeed, the UNCRC has become a useful mechanism to protect children from neglect or lack of dutiful attention by setting legally binding standards in civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. In fact, Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights had earlier affirmed such resolute belief when confronting critical children’s issues.

It is of the opinion that some of the entrenched problems facing children today can be alleviated by fully accepting the UNCRC as a binding obligation. It has identified the complexities inherent in implementing the UNCRC in Canada as a federation, but it has offered plausible solutions. While a few measures had already been adopted by Canada – such as the creation of a Federal Interdepartmental Working Group for Children “to ensure closer monitoring and greater coordination of children’s issues at the federal level” – two other recommendations remain to be acted upon. 1. To see a more active role for Parliament on the issue, and 2. To establish an “independent children’s commissioner to monitor government implementation of children’s rights at the federal level and liaise with provincial child advocates.” These will go a long way in guaranteeing “systematic monitoring of the Convention’s implementation in order to ensure effective compliance.”

Ought we to do more?

Yes, Canada ought to do more to fully implement the UN Convention and thereby ensure that the full potential of every child is developed. While progress has been made on the domestic front, “gaps and inconsistencies” have remained.

I interject to share the concerns submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child by the Canadian Coalition for Children’s Rights (CCCR) – a non-governmental organization committed to the full spirit and letter of the UNCRC. The Canadian Coalition has full standing with the UN Committee and has summarized some of the main points raised:

  1. Questions on Canada’s education system and universal childcare over representation of indigenous and minority children and youth living in foster care, the basic nutrition of children and youth incarceration;
  2. Questions about children who are falling through the cracks of fragmented support systems;
  3. Questions about equitable treatment for all children in Canada; and
  4. Lack of coherence in policies that affect children.

It is truly discouraging to learn that the concluding observations by the UN committee – from its review last fall in Geneva of Canada’s record on children’s rights – gave Canada not quite full passing marks. To this end, I mention here CCCR’s two compelling submissions that would positively impact on both policy and institutional reforms: 1. Collect and analyze accurate data and publicly report yearly on the situation of children to parliament and thereby help establish a consistent framework for policies and implementation strategies affecting children; and 2. establish a national ombudsperson for children.

Why a national ombudsperson for children?

Member of Parliament from Quebec, Marc Garneau, had sponsored a private member’s bill “to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young Persons in Canada,” equivalent to the national ombudsperson for children mentioned above.

Regrettably, the Canadian government opposed this bill and argued during debate last December in the House of Commons that allowing such an Office to be established, to sum up, “would be costly, duplicate existing international reporting processes and already existing domestic mechanisms, and would make it difficult to provide a complete portrait of children’s well-being without potentially infringing upon matters of provincial and territorial jurisdiction.”

Such response is devoid of critical thinking. Delivery of health, except for aboriginals and other clearly defined groups of citizens, is a provincial jurisdiction. Yet, Canada’s parliament passed the Canada Health Act that governs national Medicare today. Moreover, the reporting to the UN committee is done once every five years and, therefore, too long a period of time to lapse not to know the status of children’s rights and Canada’s compliance in the interim. Also, I ask, has the federal government formally asked the provincial and territorial governments for their reaction to creating the said office? My optimism tells me they would gladly collaborate and agree.

Not only is the federal government response weak, it failed to understand and appreciate the public good that would ensue from such an office. The following are the supporting reasons offered by Garneau and others for his legislative initiative:

  1. To focus on pressing children’s issues such as poverty and sexual exploitation and abuse of children and not get distracted by other competing public issues;
  2. To focus as well on prevention programs versus simply managing children’s problems after the fact and, thereby, also make the approach more cost-effective;
  3. To enable the Canadian public to be timely informed on the status of children’s rights insofar as implementation and compliance are concerned and for parliament and government to receive the public feedback, with parliament receiving an annual report from such proposed office;
  4. To enable such government-parliament-citizen engagement to occur yearly, not once every five years as the present reporting mechanism to the UN Committee mandates;
  5. To facilitate collaborative work among provinces and territories and thereby include in the conversation children beyond the reach of the provinces; and
  6. To ensure that all children, including aboriginal and minority, have a direct voice and access to the proposed office as envisioned in the UN convention.

I should note that while the UN convention has clearly spelled out the mandatory reporting process, it has no defined complaint mechanism for children. As I see it, the last mentioned rationale would help in this regard. Moreover, the federal government, by establishing such an office, will be making the clear signal that it is taking the lead with respect to full implementation of the UN Convention.

Commitment to compliance – our pledge to succeed

The Canadian government delegation stated before the UN Committee that Canada is fully committed to protect children’s rights by implementing the convention. There is room for optimism.

Let us circle November 20, 2014 our calendars – less than two years from today. That is when the international community will mark the 25th anniversary of the UNCRC. Canada, by having established by then, hopefully, an independent commissioner for children, will be giving a clear signal that it is taking the lead with respect to full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The world would have travelled a long way since Eglantyne Jebb stood at the forefront and championed the rights of the child nearly a century ago.

May it be Canada’s pride again to celebrate that we will have gone beyond commitment to compliance. We owe our nation’s precious jewels our collective pledge to succeed.

Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan is a retired Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health and former cabinet minister and Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Rights. He has been the recipient of awards and honours including the honorary Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science, the Philippine Presidential Citation Pamana ng Pilipino Award, and the Governor-General Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.

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