In 1989, an unusual thing happened in Canada’s House of Commons. Members briefly forgot about party lines and unanimously voted to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.
In retrospect, perhaps it is little surprise that, almost eight years after that deadline came and went, there has been no change in Canada’s child poverty rates. About 12 per cent – or about one of every eight – of Canada’s children still live in poverty. That is the same rate that galvanized the federal parties to set the ambitious goal in the first place.
Maybe complete elimination was an overly optimistic goal. But for Canada to make no progress whatsoever, despite unprecedented prosperity, is an historic aberration and a source of collective shame.
On November 20, UNICEF Canada issued a disturbing report on Canada’s efforts to comply with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Worse, child poverty in Canada seems to have a racial bent. UNICEF’s 2007 National Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada said First Nations and immigrants are hit the hardest and more often than other Canadians.
The First Nations population is young and growing and child poverty rates are a formidable barrier. Indeed, 28 per cent of Aboriginal children in First Nations communities were living in poverty in 2001, as were 40 per cent living outside First Nation communities.
This is far higher than the national average, and the numbers are getting worse. The poverty rate for aboriginal children is close to three times that of other Canadian children. It’s something we all knew but the report brings it out into the open. The report goes on to say children in some aboriginal communities lack access to adequate housing, clean water and good education.
The infant mortality rate for First Nations children is almost double the rate of non-aboriginal children.
December is Aids Awareness month
Last April, Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal children was called “a national total disgrace” by Senator Romeo Dallaire.
“They’re living in the Third World,” said Dallaire, a retired general who led a UN mission during the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. “You wonder if you’re a colonial white man in black Africa,” he said, recalling testimony that while Canada ranked among the top-five countries on a UN human development index, Canada’s aboriginal population lagged in 78th place.
Child poverty effects are also being felt in the classrooms, according to the Canadian Teachers Federation. Children who are hungry simply don’t learn well. The CTF also pointed out they are now seeing students who don’t even have winter clothing.
Calling Canada a banana republic is getting uncomfortably close to the truth as disparities in income continue to approach Third World levels. Among the world’s industrialized nations, Statistics Canada said this great nation has one of the highest rates of children living in welfare-supported households and a disproportionate number of them are First Nations and ethnic minority children. The same can be said for larger numbers of First Nations children in the justice system, state care and youth detention centres compared to the percentages of non-Aboriginal children.
Food banks report that over 280,000 children used their services last year. This is close to double the number of children who used them back when politicians became concerned about child poverty.
Stronger legislation and a national plan are urgently needed to improve the lives of children, said the UNICEF study. Another recommendation is that Canada should have a national children’s commissioner to ensure the rights of children are being protected and that the government is respecting the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
There is a lot of work to be done to protect our future. As the report demonstrates, we are far from even starting to work on adequate solutions. It’s time to end the 18 years of inaction for the most vulnerable citizens of our society.