A pair of newly released reports collectively argue Canada was failing to provide healthy, safe childhoods prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, setting kids up to be hit particularly hard by the global outbreak.
New rankings from the Canadian chapter of UNICEF say Canada’s children have worse physical and mental health than their peers in most other countries of comparable wealth.
The report shows Canada ranks 30th out of 38 countries when it comes to the well-being of children and youth under 18.
Meanwhile, a report from Children First Canada and the University of Calgary says the top 10 threats to childhood, which had been increasing over the past decade, are spiking further as a result of the pandemic.
These include mental illness, food insecurity, physical and sexual abuse and poverty.
Both reports argue all levels of government need to implement concrete policies to improve conditions for kids across the country.
“The situation for childhood in Canada is not at all what we would expect of a country with our wealth,” UNICEF Canada Chief Executive David Morley said in an interview. “…It’s shocking that a country like ours will be not doing so much better.”
Morley said UNICEF Canada’s research reveals shortcomings across the board for Canadian children. The organization, which has been tracking such issues for 20 years, said Canada ranks lower than most international counterparts on issues ranging from suicide rate to infant mortality.
Nearly a third of children are overweight or obese, while nearly a quarter are generally dissatisfied with their lives, the report found.
Morley said Canada had one of the highest rates of adolescent suicide among countries included in the report, as well as a child mortality figure that belies the robustness of Canada’s overall health-care system.
UNICEF Canada pegs the mortality rate at 0.98 child deaths per 1,000 births. The figures are much higher, it noted, for Indigenous children or those from racialized communities.
Morley described Canada’s performance as “worlds apart” from ranking leaders of the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.
Even in areas where Canada performs better, Morley said shortcomings are evident. He said Canada’s education system ranks in the upper tier of surveyed countries, yet the report found nearly one in three children fail to develop basic reading and math skills by age 15.
Morley attributed many of the shortcomings to a lack of government investment in programs meant to benefit children.
He said world leaders tend to invest up to three per cent of gross domestic product in such initiatives. He said Canada, while comparable in wealth to many of those countries, typically spends 1.5 to two per cent of GDP.
Morley said the weaknesses in the systems safeguarding Canada’s children all but set kids up for failure when a true crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic arrives.
The Children First Canada report agreed, noting UNICEF Canada has been tracking a decline in child well-being for nearly a decade.
Its report said all of the primary factors that place children at risk are either trending upward or are poised to do so as the pandemic affects families across the country.
Economic instability, lack of access to schools and associated supports, and increased confinement at home with potential exposure to domestic violence all signal current or future trouble for Canada’s children, it said.
“Canadians have this persistent myth that this is a world-leading country for children,” said Children First Canada chief executive Sara Austin. “Clearly that isn’t true. …Some of the basic things our kids need to survive, let alone thrive, are not in place.”
Both reports called for specific policy actions at all levels of government to improve the situation.
Morley said governments should boost income supports for families, as well as create more generous parental leave policies to allow newborns to spend quality time with family members early on.
Austin, for her part, called for the federal government to develop a national strategy to counter childhood risks, as well as appoint a children and youth commissioner. A bill to create such an office was tabled in the senate earlier this year, but died when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month.
Both Austin and Morley said COVID-19 and the heightened risks that come with it make the need for bold, prompt action very clear.
“The pandemic, I hope, will hold up a mirror to ourselves as a society,” Morley said. “And we’re going to go, ‘oh, that’s not good enough.’”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.