TORONTO, 13 December 2019 – The Prime Minister of Canada released ministerial mandate letters to guide federal ministers during the 43rd Parliament.
Canada ranks 25 out of 41 wealthy countries in child and youth well-being, a middling position that has persisted for more than a decade. Kids in Canada have one chance at childhood; they cannot wait another decade for improvements to these vital years. Globally, we have made progress for kids but we must not leave any child behind.
To mark the start of a new parliament, a new year and a new decade, UNICEF Canada offers feasible recommendations for improving childhood in Canada and around the world.
1. Reduce child poverty and income inequality
The federal government can reduce the rate of child poverty by at least 60 per cent by enhancing the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) for the lowest-income families. As a result, close to 800,000 fewer children would grow up in poverty.
Limiting income inequality is key to doing better for all children in all areas of their lives. The 42nd Parliament made progress on reducing child poverty; the 43rd Parliament can eliminate it. The Minister of Families, Children and Social Development was mandated to increase the Canada Child Benefit by 15 per cent for children under the age of one. This is an important investment in child well-being at a critical period in their lives.
The CCB is a powerful equalizer but has less impact than comparable programs in many other high-income countries. The CCB reduces child poverty by about 20 per cent, but countries with the highest levels of child and youth well-being reduce child poverty by more than 60 per cent with similar family income benefits.
2. Improve parental leave and child care
Canada should increase the rate of income of standard parental leave from 55 per cent of average weekly earnings to at least 70 per cent and decrease the qualifying income to a minimum of $2,000 in insurable income during the qualifying period regardless of the number of hours worked.
A new government seeking common ground will find that all the major federal parties campaigned on improvements to parental leave benefits.
Canadians care about this issue. A survey by Fuse Insights on behalf of UNICEF Canada found that 77 per cent of respondents agree it is important for the government to ensure that new parents can afford to take enough time to look after their children.
Of 1,500 Canadians polled, 3 out of 4 say all new parents should have access to paid parental leave, regardless of what kind of job they have at the time of their child’s birth. Currently, the benefit system disproportionately excludes Indigenous mothers and those with precarious or non-standard employment.
Six in 10 respondents said 55 per cent of salary is not affordable for people on parental leave and that people who have paid into Employment Insurance benefits should receive parental leave.
Supporting early child development helps all children thrive, reduces inequalities and enables parents to provide sufficient family income.
The Minister of Families, Children and Social Development is tasked with developing a Guaranteed Paid Family Leave program, a key advocacy priority in UNICEF Canada’s #VoteForEveryChild campaign.
He is also responsible in creating a national secretariat to “lay the groundwork” for a pan-Canadian childcare system. UNICEF Canada hoped to see more investment from the government as children and families need accessible, high-quality childcare immediately but a commitment to a national framework is an important step forward.
The letter included some other positive developments in this area, including support for early childhood educators such as lowering costs for early childhood educator degree programs and related training. In addition, a commitment to creating up to 250,000 new before-and after-school care spaces for kids under 10.
3. Ensure fairness for Indigenous children
The federal government should adopt the Spirit Bear Plan proposed by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and endorsed by the Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations to permanently end funding shortfalls in the services provided to First Nations children.
There is no commitment to implement the Spirit Bear plan in the mandate letter of the Minister of Indigenous Services, but there is a directive to “move quickly on fair and equitable compensation to First Nations persons who were harmed by the discriminatory underfunding of child and family services on reserve.” We call on the federal government to consult meaningfully with Indigenous organizations to that end.
First Nations children and families living on reserve and in the Territories receive public services funded by the federal government. Since Confederation, these services have fallen significantly short of what other Canadians receive. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Calls to Action, including a call to achieve parity for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children. Equitable spending on public services for children including clean water, health care, education and protection is their right.
4. Put children first in decision-making
The federal government has the opportunity to engage young people and give them a louder voice in decision-making by lowering the voting age to 16.
Most public policies directly affect young people but they lack influence with governments because they cannot vote. Decisions are better when the impacts on children are specifically considered and their interests are prioritized.
Six in 10 respondents to UNICEF Canada’s Fuse Insights poll agree the government should assess all new policies, laws, and government programs to determine their potential impact on children and youth. The federal government can achieve this by expanding Gender-Based Analysis+ to include a Child Rights Impacts Assessment (CRIA) on all bills and budgets.
Major parties agree about the need to establish a Children’s Commissioner. Members from the Liberal Party, Conservative Party and the NDP have all introduced legislation on this issue in previous parliamentary sessions. A federal commissioner for children and youth would help ensure Canada’s 8 million kids have a louder voice in Ottawa.
There are no commitments to these items in the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development or Minister of Youth’s mandate letters.
5. Be a leader for children internationally
At its 30th Anniversary, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is at a crossroads. Countries around the world remain committed to the promises they made to defend children’s rights but their actions and results are uneven within and between countries, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable children.
Evidence is emerging that suggests gains made for children in the last three decades could be lost as many governments, donors and even the public grow increasingly complacent. For example, more and more children caught in conflict zones are being directly targeted with near impunity. At we close 2019, 1 in 3 children around the world remain malnourished, 1 in 4 live in a humanitarian emergency setting and 7,000 newborns still die every day from mainly preventable causes.
UNICEF Canada is concerned that Minister of International Development’s mandate letter only mentions children once. We believe that it is imperative that the new federal government prioritize the protection and well-being of children and the defense of their rights as an international assistance priority. This means honoring commitments to increase global health and nutrition, with a focus on newborn and child, health and nutrition.
It also means taking the lead on a global initiative to address the gaps in children’s education in refugee settings. The Minister of International Development’s mandate letter calls on the Minister to lead a global campaign ensuring that all refugee and displaced children get the education they need and deserve. This is a huge win for children and a priority that UNICEF Canada strongly supports.
Lastly, Canada needs to continue to advance ground gained in the previous parliament in creating legislation that requires companies that do business in Canada to identify, prevent, respond to and report about their human rights impacts in Canada and around the world.
Half of respondents to UNICEF Canada and Fuse Insights’ poll agree Canada should be doing more to advocate for child rights and well-being internationally. Regrettably, the Minister of International Development’s mandate letter mentions “children” only once.
About UNICEF Canada’s One Youth
From 25th to 1st place, UNICEF Canada’s One Youth is working to make Canada the best place in the world to grow up in. As the global UN agency for kids, UNICEF has worked to improve conditions for every child around the world for more than 70 years, and has saved more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization. UNICEF Canada’s One Youth brings that work to Canada, by building the new gold standard for measuring child well-being, and developing and testing innovative solutions to the challenges they face. We are calling on Canadians to take action and do better for children and youth.
UNICEF is supported entirely by voluntary donations. For more information about UNICEF Canada’s One Youth, please visit http://www.oneyouthcanada.ca. For updates, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
UNICEF is the world’s leading humanitarian organization focused on children. We defend the right to childhood so children everywhere grow up safe, happy and healthy and able to reach their potential. UNICEF works in the most challenging areas to provide protection, healthcare and immunizations, education, safe water and sanitation and nutrition. As part of the United Nations, our unrivaled reach spans more than 190 countries and territories, ensuring we are on the ground to help the most disadvantaged children. While part of the UN system, UNICEF relies entirely on voluntary donations to finance our live-saving work. Please visit unicef.ca and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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Communications Manager, UNICEF Canada
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