New charity wants Canada to put children first

Charity urges Ottawa to appoint a national children’s commissioner to improve the wellbeing of kids.

By Laurie Monsebraaten – Social Justice Reporter,

As Canadian food banks report surging need and child poverty activists document the unequal chances of kids living in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, a new children’s charity is vowing to spur national outrage and action.

Most Canadians believe this country is one of the best in which to grow up, according to a recent survey commissioned by Children First Canada.

And yet statistics show one in five children are living in poverty, one in three Canadians have experienced some form of child abuse and one in five kids have considered suicide, said the charity’s founder Sara Austin, 41, an international children’s rights advocate and former leader with World Vision Canada.

“The kids aren’t alright,” she told a Toronto meeting of the Economic Club of Canada Wednesday. “We are talking about millions of kids from all walks of life and they deserve better.”

Canada is among the most prosperous countries in the world, she said. But the nation’s high rates of child poverty, bullying and infant mortality and low scores on immunization and child health and safety, puts Canada 17th among 29 affluent nations according to UNICEF’s global index.

While many non-profits and community groups are working to improve life for Canadian children, Austin said the charity’s goal is to mobilize public awareness and hold the federal government to account.

The charity is calling on Ottawa to appoint an independent children’s commissioner to champion kids at the federal level and to publish an annual children’s budget to track federal funding.

It wants Canadians to volunteer with their local children’s groups, talk to their neighbours and colleagues about the problem and donate to children’s organizations.

The Liberals promised a children’s commissioner during the 2015 election campaign, Austin noted.

When asked about the pledge Wednesday, a spokesman for Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families, children and social development, said the government is “still studying the idea.”

The charity, which has partnered with groups such as Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, Sick Kids Hospital, the University of Toronto and UNICEF Canada is also engaging youth in its efforts.

“Young people may be too young to vote. But they are not too young to care or to understand and they are not too young to make a difference,” said Richmond Hill’s Hannah Alper, 13, who has been blogging since she was 9.

One of several “youth ambassadors” for the charity, Alper said she has seen first-hand through her work with ME to WE the impact kids can make, listing ME to WE founder Craig Kielburger and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Fellow youth ambassador Sam Yacob, 17, said his experience as an immigrant from Eritrea a decade ago has helped him understand bullying and other struggles faced by newcomer children.

With the growing rate of children and youth facing mental health challenges, the Whitby teen said he is working to raise awareness among his high school peers in the hope that adults will pay attention and help.

“As a kid . . . I don’t know what the solutions are,” he said. “But I know what the problems are. . . And if we all come together and collaborate and make evidence-based decisions, then I think that’s the best way we can make the lives of children better.”