Second reading of Bill S-210, An Act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Youth in Canada

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, there is a saying that you can seek the wisdom of the ages, but always look at the world through the eyes of a child. I have said it many times in the chamber, and in the work I have done in children’s groups and organizations over many years. When I was first appointed to the Senate, I was asked by a reporter, “What would you like to be in the Senate?” There was a little headline in the Ottawa Citizen that said that Jimmy Munson wants to be the children’s senator. Of course, I had my mentor in Landon Pearson at that time.

In talking about children over these 15 to 16 years, we have made some headway, and we have been stopped at many spots along the way by successive governments of not listening to what we have had to say here in the Senate.

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at second reading to support Senator Moodie’s Bill S-210, An Act to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Youth in Canada.

Senator Moodie, this is your second time introducing a bill that, at second reading, is in principle as solid and necessary for a better country and a better Canada for young people and their futures.

The office of a child advocate is not a new idea. In fact, Senator Moodie’s bill is long overdue. There are still a few senators around from when we passed a report in this chamber over a decade ago, dealing with Canada’s obligations to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and promises made to First Nations and Indigenous children. We spoke at that time and we delivered a report, but successive governments didn’t really listen.

There is something that we don’t do here. We don’t give up. We never give up in the Senate. We are an institution that cares about minorities and we certainly care about children.

Today, the current unpredictable situation of COVID-19 has shown that impacts on children often come as an afterthought after major decisions have already been made, rather than in tandem. It’s more obvious than ever that Canada’s children need and deserve a children and youth commissioner’s office.

First, let me say how reassured I am to hear Senator Moodie say that she will not stop on this issue, that the office for a child and youth commissioner is one of her missions in this Senate. I really hope that Canada will create a federal child advocate office before my retirement, which is just about nine months from now. If not, I’m assured to know Canada’s children will have your voice, Senator Moodie, and others in this chamber.

Senator Moodie, don’t worry about how many times you have to introduce a private member’s bill. I had to introduce a private member’s bill on World Autism Awareness Day. It was a bill that you would think would be very simple, but there was prorogation and other things, and some people not liking the idea and saying, “Well why are you having another awareness day?” You have seen where that has gone for the autism community in this country, because of the work both here and elsewhere. I had to introduce my bill five times between 2008 and 2012 before it was finally made into law. Trust me; you will get there with perseverance, and I’m sure we all in this Senate will support you.

That’s some advice I would like to share with all senators here. Don’t stop trying. Don’t stop reintroducing and pushing your issue forward in this place because that’s what we are here to do, no matter who may like it or not. Do what you know is the right thing. Stand up for minorities. In this case, stand up for children.

It would be impossible for me to talk about children’s rights and not mention, as you did, Senator Moodie, a friend of mine, a mentor of mine, Former senator Landon Pearson was the one beside me trying to haul you into the chamber reluctantly. I ran in. I wasn’t reluctant about coming into this chamber, because I had an opportunity to have a third career. I had something on my mind about children and disabilities, and this place served as an institution to deliver that.

Senator Pearson, who was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Minister on children’s rights in 1996, started National Child Day here in the Senate. We had a wonderful thing going on here, and I hope we can continue to do this. It took two men to do Senator Pearson’s job; Senator Mercer and I took it over when she left. Then we brought in Senator Cochrane from the Conservative Party in Newfoundland, and we were on our way, but it took the three of us to do her work. This has been a joyous place for National Child Day here.

We have had The Barenaked Ladies singing in this Senate. We have had children talking the talk and talking about their issues, and it is all because of Senator Pearson. She is about to turn a certain age very soon, and you can’t say somebody’s age; I know. But you’ll figure it out. Google it and you’ll find it. There she is at the Landon Pearson Resource Centre for the Study of Childhood and Children’s Rights still doing all this work at Carleton University.

She spearheaded the important committee work during her time in the Senate. She was deputy chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights when we studied Canada’s obligations on the rights of the child. We released an interim report in 2005.

Although she had retired two years earlier, the final report titled Children: The Silenced Citizens was finally adopted through the good work in this chamber in 2007, at that time with Senator Raynell Andreychuk and Senator Joan Fraser. Dear friends, how time flies. They were so solid in the work on this report, following Senator Pearson, and they were the chair and deputy chair respectively.

This might sound familiar to what we have already heard today. Our committee’s study called for an independent federal advocate for children, with a mandate to monitor the implementation of rights of children in Canada, liaise with provincial and territorial advocates, raise the awareness of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, promote the inclusion and involvement of all children in institutions.

Many of us have pushed every government since then to follow through on our committee report, and the recommendations to appoint a federal office for children in this country. Governments have listened, but they haven’t really acted enough. That is why Senator Moodie’s bill is so important. Asking hasn’t been enough. We must act to give young people a voice. We must put it into law.

It’s disappointing for me that when I retire, I may not be able to see this report come into law. It does take that time and we’re dealing with a minority government. Who knows what happens from day to day.

Inside and outside this chamber, we have all been urging action. Meanwhile, about 60 other countries have established national offices for independent child advocates. We have to get beyond the curve here.

Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child almost three decades ago. We continue to bring up the unfair discrepancy and the well-being of children in Canada, but as I said before, governments haven’t acted strongly enough on those responsibilities.

The convention clearly outlines those absolute rights, which children must be allotted in a free and fair democracy; namely, protection from abuse and harm, the right to participate in public discourse, and the promise that children receive quality education and an adequate standard of living.

In UNICEF’s most recent report card — get this, senators — Canada ranked 30 out of 38 rich countries for overall child well-being. The report card specified that Canada scored low in children’s survival, physical, mental health and happiness, and low in supportive relationships.

It is easy for us to agree that children have every right to participate, but we must provide them with the means and the tools they need to succeed. We need to create spaces for them to speak for themselves. An independent federal advocate will be a vehicle for young people’s full participation in our democracy and participation in policy changes which directly affect them.

That brings me to another ethical reason Canada is obligated to create a child commissioner’s office. Children cannot vote, and there is currently no formal independent body that can hold government accountable for decisions that affect them.

Many nations have lowered their voting age to 16 to help address part of this gap. We see from examples like Scotland that lowering the voting age has increased interest in politics and civic engagement for young people. In fact, voter turnout was 75% for the 16 and 17 age group during a recent referendum in Scotland.

Now, before I stray too far off topic, I think a commissioner’s office would be able to help facilitate lowering the voting age in Canada while helping give a voice to those who cannot vote, and I thank Senator McPhedran for her work, which will go on, and I will support her on this.

This change would help fulfill our obligations to the rights of the child under the convention, particularly the right of young people to be heard and influence policies which affect them, not to mention other positive outcomes including more voices, better government policies and legislation, and perhaps, higher voter turnout in the future for those who are no longer children.

A children’s commissioner is an investment in the continued health and safety of future generations, as well as a mechanism through which young people may become more politically involved and motivated. Investing in our next generation and generations to come makes good ethical sense, but it is also economically advantageous. According to a Conference Board of Canada report, for every $1 of investment in early childhood education in the present, we will get back $6 in the future.

A federal advocate will ensure that Canada is making appropriate investments in children as well as making progress towards implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The office would also have to work collaboratively with First Nations, Métis, Inuit and Innu people, with the goal of monitoring progress on the government’s implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all with the goal of achieving measurable, better outcomes for children in this country.

Let me share a story with you, and this is personal. Almost two years ago, I had the privilege of introducing Dr. Cindy Blackstock at a conference on intellectual disabilities in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was a typical day in Winnipeg — it was cold. Her presentation made a big impact on me — and that was the warmth — and everyone in the room. Most of you know this story. It has to be repeated. She told us a heartbreaking story of a beautiful child, Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old from Norway House Cree Nation who lived with Carey-Fineman-Ziter syndrome and tragically passed away. Dr. Blackstock shared Jordan’s legacy with us by teaching us again about Jordan’s Principle. As many of you know, Jordan’s Principle is a child-first and needs-based principle used in Canada to ensure that First Nations children living on and off reserve have equal access to all government-funded public services. It says that First Nations children should not be denied access to public services while governments fight over who should pay.

Jordan’s story and the principle named for him have stuck with me, partly because the story is so familiar. In my work in advocacy for children and families living with autism, we have been given the jurisdictional excuse game of provincial to federal responsibility for over a decade, if not longer. While we argue, our children suffer.

Indecision and procrastination have lasted long enough. It is clear that a child-first, needs-based approach is what all children in Canada deserve. We should all learn from Jordan River Anderson’s story. Jordan’s Principle should be the goal for all of our children.

An independent federal advocate’s office would be able to investigate issues that pertain to Canada’s most vulnerable children, such as racialized children and those living with physical or intellectual disabilities. These groups experience discrimination far more than other Canadian children. They are also more likely to experience negative childhood experiences like poverty and abuse, and more often report low levels of life satisfaction.

We know that children with intellectual disabilities are at least two times more likely to live in poverty than their peers and are much more likely to report feeling unsafe than children with no disabilities.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Would you like a few more minutes?

Senator Munson: I would like a few more minutes.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Is leave granted?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Munson: Furthermore, it is well known that Black, First Nation, Métis and Inuit children are overrepresented in the child welfare system, the juvenile justice systems, and are more likely to face discrimination at school. For instance, they are more often expelled or suspended at their school than their peers.

Now, saying all that, children are the most reliant people in our population. It is essential that we take responsibility as policy-makers to protect them. The commissioner could act as a bridge and would be able to better examine the inequalities that exist between children and adults, and the multiple barriers facing vulnerable children across the country.

There are over 10 million young persons in this country, and more than a third of them say they do not have a safe and healthy childhood. One quarter of children say they often go to school or bed hungry. Hungry in this country, can you imagine? And you don’t have to look too far from the shadows of Parliament Hill — having lived in this city a long time — to see that right here in the nation’s capital.

This year, children around the world have had their routines shattered. We see how their lives are being altered as a result of the COVID pandemic. As we have discussed in this place since the spring, the pandemic has perpetrated these issues surrounding mental health, and instances of domestic violence have risen as well.

Children First Canada, an incredible group, has this mental health data from Statistics Canada that children rate their mental health as worsening because of the pandemic. This is what saddens me, these numbers. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15 to 24, and is now also the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14. Canadian children are suffering mentally and physically more than ever.

The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre has seen an increase in reports of child sexual exploitation, as has the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s tip line to report the online sexual exploitation of children. The latter has seen an 81% spike over April, May and June of this year. Let those numbers sink in.

In closing, honourable senators, the wellness of children in Canada has been on the decline over the last decade. Intersecting risk factors such as poverty, food insecurity, access to mental health services and family struggles have been compounded by the pandemic and have heightened negative impacts on young people. The pandemic has further magnified the evidence that Canada needs an independent federal advocate for children and youth.

I would like to quote from our 2007 committee report in this chamber, which was unanimous, which touches on the importance of inclusion:

Children’s voices rarely inform government decisions, yet they are one of the groups most affected by government action or inaction. Children are not merely underrepresented; they are almost not represented at all.

Last year, I was honoured to sponsor the Accessible Canada Act, and during that time we learned a mantra from the disability community: Nothing about us without us. As far as I’m concerned, this should be the mantra in policy-making. Let’s not leave children out of the decision-making process. Their voices will provide for better outcomes and futures for all of us. We need to include them. Inclusion, as you know, is my motto.

Senators, this bill in principle at second reading deserves to pass as quickly as possible and get to committee. I look forward to following the bill at committee and listening to the views of young Canadians from across the country.

And, Senator Moodie, I really want to thank you for your advocacy and for your love of children and their rights. Thank you very much, honourable senators.

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