The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child uses a standard of “the best interests of the child” to determine states’ obligations to implement the rights detailed under the convention. Canada is, of course, a signatory to the convention and its two optional protocols dealing with child soldiers and the sale of children, prostitution, and child pornography.
According to speakers at a recent conference in Ottawa, we can certainly do better to meet the standard of “the best interests of the child” in Canada. As a nation, we are pretty confused about how we feel about children in need. Our health, social services, educational, criminal, and indigenous policies often pull in different directions. This shotgun approach — driven by a variety of federal and provincial actors, including practitioners and advocates, working from positions in federal, provincial, and international law — ends up serving administrative and political ends rather than the best interests of children.
Spanking is still legal in Canada. In Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v. Canada (Attorney General), the Supreme Court of Canada held that s. 43 of the Criminal Code, allowing a defence to corporal punishment against children, does not violate a child’s rights to security of the person and equality, and is not cruel and unusual punishment.
Provincial child welfare agencies often have their own institutional biases that work against “the best interests of the child,” such that these institutions end up becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.
We are generally uncomfortable with the idea of sexually active youth. When their activity is “deviant” many Canadians feel the child should be incarcerated or punished rather than treated.
Contrary to popular belief, youth sexual offenders, who are often male, come from all income strata. They were not sexually abused as children. They are not pedophiles and are not prone to becoming pedophiles when they become adults. They tend to be kids with impulse and self-esteem problems. Treatment outcomes through counselling are highly effective. Incarceration and stigmatization of this group of offenders and by extension their families, does very little good and in fact causes a great deal of stress and harm to the families as they try to support their child and respect the rules set out by the provincial child welfare organizations. If the offending child is charged by the police and incarcerated, the emotional damage can be irreversible.
Attitudes towards female youth prostitutes tend to deny their agency. Many of the provincial laws that deal with child prostitution take a paternalistic approach to this complex problem and seek to remove the child from the support system she has found without dealing with the underlying problems that got her there in the first place.
In the case of aboriginal children, living on reserve or in remote communities, we refuse to own any responsibility for the fact that Canada provides a lower standard of educational, social, and health services to these children in comparison with other Canadian children. This is a particularly extreme and shameful double standard. Last month’s decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Assembly of First Nations v. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is hugely troubling, basically saying that there is no standard of services that is owed to First Nations children.
Mariatu Kamara, a UNICEF special representative for children and armed conflict, gave the keynote speech at the conference. She spoke about her journey as the victim of civil war in Sierra Leone. Kamara, now 24, was a carefree 12-year-old living in a rural village when the effects of war began to be felt by her region. She and her family moved to another village in the hopes of remaining safe. That village was attacked, and she witnessed the brutal killing of friends, family, and strangers and had her hands cut off by child soldiers. She managed to survive by fleeing into the bush and making her way to safety where she eventually received medical treatment and was lucky enough to also reunite with some members of her family.
She told her story in a clear voice, quite simply and without visible signs of the trauma that she had certainly endured. She referred the audience to her book, The Bite of the Mango, for specific details, as remembering these events was sometimes too hard for her to bear. It hurt my heart to hear her, but at the same time I was impressed by her courage, poise, and spirit.
Kamara also spoke about not having any desire to take revenge on the child soldiers who cut off her hands and committed the atrocities she witnessed. She sees those child soldiers as victims of war like herself. She believes that looking back solves nothing and in order to make something out of the life that was granted to her, while so many others have died or remain living in terrible conditions, she has a responsibility to help. So she has started her own foundation to help victims back in Sierra Leone.
Perhaps we can learn from this courageous young woman, to put the people in need at the centre of our thoughts and do what we can to help them. We can insist that aboriginal children in Canada receive the same services as non-aboriginal children. We can insist that child soldiers, including Omar Khadr, can be understood to be children who have committed atrocities for the adults who had power over them, and be protected under law, or allowed refuge in our country. We can insist that adolescent mental health is important and provide greater services to this under-served and vulnerable population.
We don’t have to start a foundation. We pay taxes and we can demand that our governments spend our tax dollars on children in need instead of weapons of war and prisons.