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Commentary: It’s important to ask a young person what they think

Nov. 20 has been recognized as National Child Day since 1989

Annette King

Let me start by saying that asking a young person their opinion, does not take away the authority of adults.

Nov. 20 has been recognized as National Child Day since 1989 when the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). By ratifying the convention in 1991, Canada committed to upholding the rights of children in all laws and policies.

On National Child Day, we recognize the young people in Canada who still struggle for the same rights that come so easily to others.

In 2009, the Yukon Government passed the Child and Youth Advocate Act and in 2010, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate was opened. The Child and Youth Advocate Office (YCAO) is an independent office of this legislation assembly. An all-party committee appoints an advocate for five year terms. Andy Niemen was the first appointed advocate and in 2015, I was appointed.

It seems to me that many people don’t understand advocacy and it can be difficult to explain children’s rights in a way that inspires adults to uphold them.

At our office, we don’t come across the situations where children’s rights are upheld, every advocacy issue we see is a situation where a child’s rights are disregarded. In eight years of operation, we have addressed 504 advocacy issues for over 400 Yukon children and youth. Each year, the number and complexity of advocacy issues that come to the office increases.

Among its 54 articles, the UNCRC ensures that children have the right to be heard (Article 12), the right to food, clothing and shelter (Article 27), the right to government support if you are poor or in need (Article 26), the right to practice one’s own culture (Article 30), the right be free from abuse (Articles 19, 34, 35, 36, 37), the right to health care (Article 24) and education (Article 28, 29).

In my opinion many government laws and policies currently reflect implementation of children’s rights. For example, the Education Act stats that children with special needs can have access to special supports and individualized education. The Youth Justice policies require young offenders to have a youth-specific court and when in custody to be separate from adults. The Family and Children’s Services Act states that children should be raised with their families and their best interests should be considered in all decisions.

Despite the intentions of the legislation, I am concerned about how well the intent is put into practice. Every day at the office we hear about children and youth who are not protected, not accessing education, not accessing the supports they need and not being heard. I am especially concerned about the high proportion of indigenous children and youth who do not have access to their rights.

Eighty per cent of the advocacy issues we address each year are for First Nations children and youth. Approximately 40 per cent of the children and youth we advocate for don’t live with their parents and have several rights that require resolution. We are currently conducting a systemic review of the experiences of children and youth living in group homes. The review focuses on how well the rights of children and youth are being upheld and will give recommendations to the government to improve services for children in group care.

Adults sometimes ask us why children’s rights are important and if supporting the rights of children takes away the authority of adults. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Children have a right to parental guidance (Article 5, 18).

Children do not come to our office asking for freedom from adults; instead, they tell us: “I just need someone to ask me how I am” (Article 25); “I don’t know where I am going to live” (Article 18, 27); “I want to be safe” (Article 19, 34, 36) ;” I wish I could live with my brother” (Article 12, 30); “I don’t like seeing my mom when she drinks” (Article 19, 33); “I feel like nobody cares” (Article 39); “I want to finish high school…but I need help” (Article 23, 28, 29); “nobody asks me what I think” (Article 12).

Using a child rights lens in advocacy inspires hope. When we hear about a child’s distressing situations, it can be quite overwhelming; for me, putting the issues in the context of children’s rights helps clarify the issue and work to resolution that supports the child’s wellbeing. I am always inspired when I explain Article 12 to a young person and they tell me their view. It often feels like it’s the first time anyone has asked.

More and more we are seeing government workers interested in a rights-based approach to their work. I hope this is because they are noticing that this approach makes a meaningful difference for the children and youth they work with.

Child rights are more than a concept and they are more than something nice to do. Just because these rights are clearly laid out in the UNCRC does not mean everyone is familiar with them. This is a situation that needs to change.

Children’s rights are human rights that have special considerations for the developmental needs of young people as well as the responsibilities of adults to provide support, care and dignity for children. Most children in Canada have adults to protect them and provide for them. Some children don’t have natural advocates, and need someone to stand up for them. Children have a right to learn about their rights from supportive adults. We have noticed that when children know about their rights, they are more likely to uphold the rights of others.

The Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office encourages everyone to take action toward improving the implementation of children’s rights by:

• taking the initiative to become informed about child rights,

•helping children and youth to be aware of their rights,

• speaking up when a child or youth needs help

• expecting governments to comply with the UNCRC, and holding them accountable to do so.

We encourage everyone to take the time to listen to a child and to celebrate the many efforts of youth participation in our community.

On this National Child Day, I urge everyone to ask a young person what they think.

Annette King is the Yukon’s child and youth advocate