Proposed changes in Canadian family law are a big step forward for children’s rights in Canada. If passed, Bill 78 will make the Best Interests of the Child the only principle for decisions on parental arrangements in divorce cases. Criteria for determining the best interests of the child reflect Convention principles, including a legal requirement to consider the views of affected children. This is the first time that the Article 12 duty to consider the views of children is being incorporated into Canadian law. In addition to advocating for this, a CCRC submission argued that there are good practices available; they can become standard practice. Public legal education will be essential to implement the new law well.
In addition to making the best interests of the child a central principle, proposed changes will also:
While more detailed examination of specific provisions is required, the CCRC welcomes this initiative, which puts children at the center of the law and responded to most of the recommendations in our earlier submission. The bill will now be considered by parliament.
The CCRC notes that this is a culture change in family law. A strong program of public education and cooperation by all parties will be important for effective implementation.
Children are affected when their parents go through a divorce, but their rights are not well-protected in Canada’s current family laws. The CCRC welcomes plans to modernize the law and expand the unified family court system. Stronger protection for the rights of children should be central to this process. It is also an opportunity for Canada to incorporate the Convention into Canadian law and decision-making processes, something Canada was asked to do in the last review of how it implements the Convention. The CCRC submission makes several recommendations.
In 2012 Canada was specifically asked to address the high incidence of obesity in children by, among other steps, “ensuring greater regulatory controls over the production and advertisement of fast food and unhealthy foods, especially those targeted to children. (Concluding Observations, paragraph 64, CRC/C/CAN/CO/3-4, page 15) This was one recommendation among many in the last review of how Canada implements children’s rights. The CCRC welcomed the inclusion of this policy initiative in the mandate letter for the Minister of Health shortly after the election in 2015.
Two years later, news reports suggest that the policy development process is mired in conflicting pressures from food production companies and competing economic development interests. There is little evidence that the rights of children are being taken seriously, let alone being at the center for all the stakeholders in this debate. How might the Convention help?
The obligation to give priority to the Best Interests of Children (Article 3) puts impacts for children at the top, higher than impacts for business interests. How are the best interests of children being determined? If all stakeholders put that as a priority, resolution of differences would keep children at the forefront.
Children have a right to enjoy the “highest attainable standard of health” under Article 24. Minimum standards and lowest denominator approaches need to be replaced by a focus on the best possible set of policies and actions by all stakeholders. Instead of doing the least possible, we should do the most we can for the highest nutritional health of children.
Children have a right to information (Article 13), with specific provisions for the mass media “to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child” and “protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being” (Article 18). Is nutritional information youth-friendly? Are the views of young people being considered, to enable them to make well-informed decisions? How do the standards for advertising and packaging information comply with respect for the rights of children, as articulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which all governments in Canada have ratified?
This issue is another example of how taking children’s rights seriously could improve the way governance works in Canada. Unfortunately Canada lacks a robust mechanism to ensure that the Convention is considered for every policy that affects children. The CCRC calls for the use of Children’s Rights Impact Assessments (CRIA); it would force everyone to put children at the center and come up with the best possible options.
The CCRC calls for three steps to address the concerns related to marijuana use and young people in an Open Letter to Federal and Provincial Governments:
The Open Letter includes a list of all the rights that need to be considered, as well as the specific provisions of Article 33 of the Convention.
The case of Omar Khadr shows the importance of recognizing and protecting the rights of every child. Early recognition of Khadr’s rights as a child could have prevented harm to him and the need for redress and financial compensation now. In a public statement the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of the Child (CCRC) explains the role of children’s rights in this issue from early days through the Supreme Court case to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Judicial rulings in this case, along with cases in refugee determination and indigenous child welfare, highlight the need for the federal government to reform the mechanisms it uses to identify and protect the rights of children early in its decision-making processes.