Counting the cost of child poverty
The Toronto Star, April 30, 2007
Child poverty in Canada is a national disgrace that shames us on the world stage and offends our international legal obligations. That was a central message put forward last week by Canadian senators and physicians who are lobbying Ottawa to take the rights and needs of children far Read More ..riously than it has in the past.
In a report called Children: The Silenced Citizens, the Senate human rights committee faulted Ottawa for failing miserably to live up to its obligations to protect the rights and freedoms of children. One of its key recommendations calls for a federal strategy to combat child poverty with clear goals and timetables, including preventive measures for high-risk families and a coherent housing strategy. All are measures the Star has urged in our War On Poverty campaign.
Meanwhile, a Child Health Summit sponsored by a coalition of physicians lobbying to improve health outcomes for children met in Ottawa to discuss how to improve Canada's unacceptably mediocre international ranking on child health.
Both groups' conclusions underline the stark fact that children's rights and health are inextricably linked to poverty, and often are neglected.
"Children's voices rarely inform government decisions, yet they are one of the groups most affected by government action or inaction," the Senate report found. "Children are not merely under-represented; they are almost not represented at all."
In addition to calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government to address poverty and housing issues directly, the all-party Senate committee urged Ottawa to work with the provinces to establish standards and guidelines for improving early childhood development programs and child care, matched with adequate funding. Child care has fallen off the federal agenda since the Conservatives cancelled a federal-provincial agreement.
At the same time, the physicians cited our dismal ranking on everything from infant mortality to youth suicide, all linked to poverty. Canada ranks 21st among 29 wealthy nations on infant mortality, 22nd on youth suicide and 19th of 20 on childhood obesity.
And the health of aboriginal children is so abysmal it ranks with that of developing countries, which concerned senators and physicians alike.
How little does Canada care about children, despite Parliament's unanimous vote in 1989 to end child poverty by 2000? Today, 18 years later, among 26 wealthy nations we rank 22nd in terms of children living in relative poverty. By any standard, these are dismal statistics.
Consciousness-raising is an important first step toward turning things around. That is no doubt why both groups have urged Ottawa to create an independent commissioner for children and youth, to give them a voice on the national stage and to promote their issues on the government agenda. It is an idea well worth exploring.
As Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, the Child Commissioner for England, put it at the health summit: "The badge of honour of a civilized society is to protect its most vulnerable." We are nowhere close.