On September 6, 2019 the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the Canadian government to pay compensation to First Nations children who had suffered from discrimination and violation of their rights in Canada’s child welfare systems. The amount of the award for each child is to be determined through an independent process. The total cost is estimated to be $2 billion. No amount of money can compensate for the harm done, but this is a significant moment for the individual children and for all Canadian children because it shows that children’s rights need to be taken seriously.
If Canada took implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child seriously, the situation of First Nations children would have been addressed much earlier, preventing harm and saving a lot of money. Will federal and provincial governments learn from this hefty penalty? The 5th/6th review of how Canada treats children’s rights, currently underway, is an opportunity for all governments to show they have learned something from the long legal battle over what it means to respect the rights of children to freedom from discrimination, one of the basic principles in the Convention. Hopefully Canada will undertake and report major reforms of both federal and provincial child welfare systems before the end of the review process. The CCRC continues to call for putting children’s rights at the center of all child welfare systems.
Child welfare systems in Canada are not working for many children. Both federal and provincial systems need major reform. Recommendations have been made in numerous reports over the years, but they have often resulted in tinkering rather than reform. Now is the time for action. At the federal level, Bill C-92 introduces significant reforms for children under federal jurisdiction. The CCRC encourages parliament to give this bill high priority with detailed review and adoption before the end of this session. At the same time, it will only be effective if there is also significant reform of provincial child welfare systems.
Taking children’s rights seriously requires significant reforms that would benefit both indigenous and non-indigenous children. It is the system, not the children, that needs to be fixed. A CCRC Fact Sheet identifies three high priority areas for attention. A more detailed discussion paper looks at how provincial legislation in Canada implements the rights of children that all governments ratified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It found that most do not comply with fundamental principles of children’s rights. Putting children’s rights at the center of both federal and provincial systems would close gaps and prevent children from falling through the cracks of our fragmented support systems for children in need:
- The best interests of the child should be paramount and determined by considering all aspects of their rights, using the Convention, in a clear process that supports the child.
- The views of the child must be considered, at all stages in the process, with reasonable access to avenues of appeal when it is not considered.
- Separation from families and communities should be the last resort and for the shortest period of time; supporting children, families and communities should be the primary focus.
- Annual public accountability, including response to recommendations from reviews, which are often not implemented.
The discussion paper raises questions about the systems themselves, drawing on basic principles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also reviews past recommendations made by various investigative bodies in Canada and in previous reviews of Canada by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Basic areas for attention include the following:
- Data and public accountability: Accurate data on children in care is still missing, three years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action #2 and 55 and six years after the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child named Canada’s failure in this regard.
- Legislative Reform: A sampling of provincial child welfare laws shows need for updating to implement basic principles of children’s rights, such as Best Interest of the Child, Views of the Child, Support for the Family, Cultural Connections, and Permanency Planning.
- Prevention: Removal of children from families should be last resort; more attention is needed to support children and families.
Canada is currently undergoing another review of how children’s rights are implemented by both federal and provincial governments. According to the CCRC, taking steps to reform child welfare needs to be part of the review in order for Canada to fulfill its commitments to respect the rights of children. Implementing children’s rights would benefit all children in the system and the country as a whole.