This opinion column first appeared in The Province on December 13, 2016
Dec. 13 marks the 25th anniversary of Canada’s ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history.
Countries around the world, with Canada in the lead, recognized then that children under 18 have the same rights as adults to be safe, secure, protected, healthy and happy. But achieving these rights is much harder for children. Their best interests can easily be overlooked and conflict with adult interests.
The convention uses a rights-based approach with four inseparable components. First, children’s rights are those aimed at the overall well-being of all children, without discrimination. Their rights include an adequate standard of living, education, health, protection from all forms of violence including exploitation, and to not be separated from their parents unless necessary to protect them from harm. Children’s best interests are primary; they come before all others if there is a conflict.
Second, children should be treated with dignity and respect and should be active participants in achieving their well-being, based on their capabilities.
Third, their well-being must be specifically considered in all matters affecting them, going beyond courts to administrative and other decisions like those made about education, health, child protection, gender identity and the environment.
Finally, adults are accountable to children to ensure children’s rights are understood by everyone, and to facilitate the realization of rights in the daily lives of children as they develop, ensuring they have timely justice, child-friendly processes, relevant information and legal representation. Governments have specific responsibilities, including a critical obligation, when making all decisions about laws, regulations and especially budgets to conduct child rights impact assessments with the participation of children.
The Convention’s provisions offer such promise. Why is it, then, that in 2013 UNICEF Canada concluded that among rich countries, Canada ranked 17 out of 29 for children’s overall well-being? Why, this year, are we “at the back of the pack” when measuring inequality gaps in health, education, income and life satisfaction, ranking 26 out of 35? Why are one in five B.C. children living in poverty? Why do Indigenous children continue to be most vulnerable, widely overrepresented among children living in care and in poverty?
In Canada’s last Convention compliance report, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed many implementation concerns. Among them are the lack of respect for the views of the child, ineffective allocation of resources for children, the need to do more to address violence against children, and the lack of systemic training on children’s rights and the Convention for all professional groups, including lawyers and judges, working for or with children. Surely we can do much better.
On this 25th anniversary the convention still provides promise and there is much to celebrate. There are many dedicated advocates using the convention to improve the lives of B.C. children. Recent lawyer initiatives include the B.C. Branch of the Canadian Bar Association creating the Children’s Law Section, involving young people in its work. B.C. lawyers are part of a National CBA Children’s Law Committee that has developed a comprehensive online Child Rights tool kit for lawyers and judges. The Continuing Legal Education Society of B.C. presented an award-winning conference called “Access to Justice for Children.” The B.C. Law Foundation has initiated a Children’s Lawyer project.
The Law Society of B.C. and governments are committed to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent calls to action, responding to courageous stories about Indigenous children in residential schools. The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women will help to ensure that all girls grow up feeling more protected and valued.
The convention provides a roadmap not just for lawyers but for all British Columbians. Let’s use it together to put children at the front of the pack. They deserve no less.
Donna Martinson, a retired B.C. Supreme Court judge, and child-rights lawyer Sarah Rauch are co-chairwomen of the Children’s Law Section, Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch.