November 20 marked Universal Children’s Day and National Child Day in Canada, a recognition of the 1989 unanimous adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations.
This UN Convention provides an invaluable framework for enabling children to live and grow and flourish. Eliminating social inequities and respecting children’s rights begins with making the choice to do so. While Canada made this choice when it ratified the convention in December 1991, we are not meeting our obligations to all children of this country.
National Child Day reminds us not only of what has been accomplished, but also of the work that needs to be done, particularly for the most vulnerable, like indigenous children or those with physical or intellectual disabilities.
There are inconsistencies in health and mental health services, access to healthy food and clean water, and education services across this country. For this reason, I continue to encourage the creation of a national commissioner for children and youth in Canada. This would level the playing field for all children, so that no matter the economic or social situation they are born into, they have the chance to succeed and achieve their greatest potential.
One of the most important and greatest commitments a society can make is to its children. There is a saying: You can seek the wisdom of the ages, but always look at the world through the eyes of a child.
Last week we marked the 150th anniversary of the first sitting of the Senate, which took place on November 6, 1867.
The Canada of today is a country that knows no equal in the world. Certainly we owe that to our founders’ spirit of compromise, as well as to the Senate, which played a fundamental role in building the nation.
Canada was born not out of an ideology or a grand scheme or a war or civil strife. It was essentially the result of a pragmatic approach to resolve the unification of two linguistic communities and of different regions with various levels of wealth and aspiration to create a greater country.
It is the Senate that was entrusted with the responsibility of having regional voices heard at the centre of government and with speaking on behalf of its minorities so that they would not be swamped under the weight of the majorities. Rights and freedoms of Canadians and of Aboriginal peoples are always better guaranteed when the Senate uses its independent thinking to evaluate the impact of legislation on those who have lower voices or lower capacities to be heard by the majority.
It is in the Senate that the federal principle was enshrined, and it is for this reason that it was given legislative power equal to that of the House of Commons in the enactment of legislation. As long as the Senate fulfills its constitutional duty, Canada will continue to thrive and remain a beacon of liberty and equal dignity for all.
Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day, and I would like to remind everyone that Canada has made promises to indigenous peoples in many forms, but there is still inequality between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
As Inuk, I know we Inuit have strong treaties with the Crown which were signed decades ago, but problems still abound with the implementation of the terms of these treaties:
To this day, the delivery of health care to remote and rural communities is still inadequate.
As outside interest in the Arctic increases due to the melting of the sea ice, we are still fighting to get the government to acknowledge our rights to Arctic resources and to allow us to practice our full constitutional rights to participate in negotiations dealing with our homeland. One example of this is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the territory beyond Canada’s 200-mile limit.
Meanwhile, First Nations are dealing with similar issues that Inuit have:
Over 70 First Nation communities lack clean drinking water.
Indigenous children receive less funding per child than non-indigenous students, with the funding gap between 20 and 50 per cent in some provinces.
There is still a lack of consistent multi-year funding that will give certainty and stability of programming and support for indigenous communities.
We as Senators also need to improve our approach to indigenous-related issues. We are still dealing with bills that have potential impact on the treaties signed with Aboriginal peoples, but we do not have standard non-derogation clause. Neither do we get alerted by the Department of Justice when there are possible infringements on our rights or Section 35 violations, which I believe is the Department’s responsibility. Furthermore, even our own colleagues in the Senate still consider Consultation to be an afterthought instead of a necessity.
In spite of this, I was encouraged yesterday in our Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. The fine young witnesses gave us a glimpse of what Canada could be if we empower these youth with appropriate opportunities and funding to move forward with the goals of reconciliation and partnership between Canada and indigenous peoples.
Canada is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year, and it would be a great celebration indeed if only the government could finally follow through the commitments that this nation has made to all native inhabitants of this country. Until then, we could only continue the fight that indigenous peoples have been fighting for more than 150 years.
I would like to pay tribute to a remarkable New Brunswicker: The Acadian actress and former senator, the honorable Viola Léger.
It was with great sadness that I learned that Senator Léger has withdrawn from public life after suffering a stroke in January.
Often described as “one of the brightest stars in Canada’s artistic firmament”, she also performed as a distinguished public servant.
Mme Léger is known across the world for a character that portrays a humble Acadian cleaning lady from rural New Brunswick: La Sagouine.
She incarnated la Sagouine more than three-thousand times throughout Canada and abroad between 1971 and 2016, winning rave reviews for her unique and engaging portrayal.
Her talent has earned her many awards: In 1989, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2007, she was awarded the Order of New Brunswick, and in 2013, she received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.
As an artist, as an educator, and as a senator; her vitality and creative nature remains great inspiration to many.
A great supporter of Canadian artists, she founded her own theatre company in New Brunswick and established the Viola Léger Foundation to support theatre production and professional training for Acadian theatre artists.
Her fresh insights, her passion for the theater and, her dedication to the promotion of Acadian culture marked the years we served together in this chamber.
I would like Senator Léger to know that we very much appreciate the enormous contribution she has made to Acadian culture and heritage in New Brunswick.
She will always be in the hearts of New Brunswickers and her image of a humble Acadian woman will live forever.