By Sara Austin
Sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office, 10-year-old Roman made a passionate plea I will never forget: 18 is just a number. His conviction was almost jarring. Without reservation, he spoke about children’s rights, their need to be heard – at any age – and his frustration with not being counted simply because he couldn’t vote.
I first met Roman at a birthday party. I never imagined standing together on Parliament Hill a year later. The meeting was part of a two-day summit in 2017 to draft Canada’s first Children’s Charter.
Roman’s words stayed with me for a long time. He was right. Nothing magical happens at 18. Children’s voices need to be heard.
This week, Children First Canada launched a Youth Advisory Council to help fulfil our vision to make Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up. The eight-member group will mobilize children and youth from across the country to advocate for their rights.
They will also lead our latest initiative to form a Young Canadians’ Parliament. Now 13, Roman is an influential member of this new council.
We launched these two initiatives because kids can’t wait. The impacts of COVID-19 have caused significant challenges that require urgent attention: children face an increased risk of abuse due to economic pressures, access to vital health services is limited, and kids who rely on school-based nutritional programs for their daily meals are going without.
We desperately need to hear from young people to address these issues. They are experts in their own lives and are often the most creative and innovative when it comes to designing the much-needed solutions. And they need to be involved in the government decisions and policies that will affect their future.
In a recent poll, Canadians were asked how effectively children and youth are represented and engaged in the development of public policy in Canada. Nearly 75 per cent of respondents believe children are not represented well.
The Young Canadians’ Parliament provides a compelling platform for young people to be heard at higher levels of government. There is something powerful about hearing a child speak. It creates a sense of urgency and it holds parliamentarians accountable.
The same year that Roman spoke to Prime Minister Trudeau, Malala Yousafzai addressed Canada’s Parliament. As a child, she fought for her voice to be heard. In her historic address to the House of Commons, Malala paused to recognize the valuable contribution of children.
“I want to tell the children of Canada that when I was little, I used to wait to be an adult to lead,” said the Pakistani activist, who was shot at the age of 15 for advocating for girls’ education. “But I have learned that even a child’s voice can be heard across the world.”
As we launch the Youth Advisory Council and the Young Canadians’ Parliament, I’m excited about the positive impact these young leaders will have both now and in the future. And I’m reminded, once again, that you can find more than cake and candles at a birthday party.
Sara Austin is the founder and CEO of Children First Canada.
Do you know a child or youth who should add their voice to the Young Canadians’ Parliament? Encourage them to register today.
Every child has something meaningful to say. Let’s take the time to listen and then act.