Our most vulnerable children deserve better care

National Child Day, which commemorates the adoption of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, has come and gone for another year, but Canada cannot celebrate much progress.

Yes, the federal government has established a poverty reduction strategy and there is a youth council to advise the prime minister. These are important steps toward improving the well-being of kids and their families.

But Canada continues to fall behind other developed countries when it comes to child well-being.

Canada ranked 25th out of 41 peer countries on UNICEF’s 2017 index of child and youth well-being and sustainability.

A recent national study reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian children. Mental-health related hospitalization rates are increasing and approximately one in five Canadian kids continue to live in poverty.

The reality is more bleak when you consider First Nations children.

One in three Indigenous children live in poverty. This number rises to over 60 per cent among children living on reserve.

First Nations youth have suicide rates five to seven times higher than non-Indigenous youth, and Inuit youth have one of the highest rates in the world, 11 times higher than the national average.

We must do better.

At a recent cross-partisan open caucus meeting in the Canadian Senate, experts from across the country addressed the issue of child well-being in Canada. As the caucus heard, Canada still has much to do.

Canada is not living up to its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention seeks to ensure children’s right to survival, protection from harm, neglect and exploitation, and the right to develop to their fullest potential.

Jordan’s Principle, which passed unanimously in the House of Commons in 2007 and seeks to ensure First Nations children receive equitable access to all government services and support, remains unenforced.

Andrea Auger, a member of the Pays Plat First Nation in Ontario, told the forum that the “federal government has a long-standing pattern of discrimination against First Nations children.”

This is unacceptable.

“We need to ensure substantive equality,” said Auger, reminding the caucus that child welfare was the No. 1 call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation report.

How can we change the trajectory for Canada’s most vulnerable youth?

Canada must fully implement Jordan’s Principle. First Nations children deserve robust services and supports, equal to those of their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The government must also appoint a federal commissioner for children and youth. As Stephanie Mitton from Children First Canada told the forum, a commissioner would hold our governments accountable.

Sixty other countries have a children’s commissioner in place, and as Pamela Lovelace from Wisdom2Action noted, there’s ample evidence that such a position improves child welfare.

Finally, we must urgently develop a national youth suicide prevention strategy and fund mental health services across the country, particularly for Indigenous youth.

Investing in kids is about investing in our future.

Jane Cordy and Raymonde Gagne are Canadian senators. Distributed by Troy Media.

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