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Oh Canada, our kids deserve better

By David Morley      

Canada has the innovation, capacity, and resources to move the needle and make things better for children, but not without concerted action and commitment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also the minister of Youth, gives a speech at the UN headquarters on the margins of the General Assembly in 2016. Photograph courtesy of the United Nations by Laura Jarriel

Most people believe Canada is the best country in the world to grow up in. It’s time to bust this myth. In fact, it’s not even in the top 10—or the top 20.

Many of us think Canada is a clean, safe, and healthy nation where our children can grow up to be anything they want. The reality is that too many of Canada’s children are suffering from unhealthy weight, poor mental health, and bullying. They’re excluded from education and employment. And, they’re stuck in a holding pattern that is keeping them from realizing their full potential.

A new UNICEF report, Oh Canada! Our Kids Deserve Better, ranks Canada 25th out of 41 rich countries when it comes to how our children are faring. When compared against 21 indicators related to the global Sustainable Development Goals for children and youth, Canada falls in the middle—a position we have not been able to improve for more than a decade. Nearly half of the indicators have actually worsened. In many of the most concerning indicators of child health and violence, Canada lags behind other countries.

What does this mean for Canada’s children?

It means too many of them are living with violence. Canada ranks 27th and 33rd out of 41 for bullying and child homicide, respectively. Canada has the fifth-highest rate of bullying at 15 per cent—well above the average. Our child homicide rate is improving, but still higher than average; child homicide is the fourth-leading cause of death among young people aged one to 24.

It means too many of our children are contemplating—and committing—suicide. Canada ranks 31st out of 41 for teen suicide. While adolescent suicide rates have fallen in the majority of countries in recent years, the rate of 8.5 per 100,000 has remained relatively unchanged in Canada.

It means too many of our children are unhealthy.

Canada ranks 24th out of 41 in food security, for access to enough nutritious food to grow, develop, be healthy and active. Canada also ranks 29th out of 41 in unhealthy weight of children. Nearly 25 per cent of young people are obese, above the average of 15 per cent.

Too many of our children are also at risk of breathing unsafe air. Canada’s urban air pollution is barely below the safe level set by the World Health Organization.

Despite these alarming trends, Canada’s middle ranking is propped-up on the other end by a strong education system and progress in several important indicators, including reducing infant mortality and teen births. However, even where our indicators are improving, we are often far behind the best-performing countries.

Can Canada become the best place in the world to grow up in? Of course we can. Canada has the innovation, capacity, and resources to move the needle and make things better for children, but not without concerted action and commitment.

Public policies can make a real difference to our children. We must invest more and earlier in children, building on new momentum by Canada’s governments. We must seek-out and be guided by better data. We must devote our programs and services to the lagging areas, and to closing the gaps between our own children—countries with the greatest outcomes for all children also have the smallest gaps between them.

Average Canadians can also play a part. A Big-City Challenge to bring down unhealthy weight in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver—where 30 per cent of our nation’s children live—would see Canada make measurable progress up league tables of child and youth well-being. Communities could also try to ‘beat’ national averages, igniting a cycle of raising community and national outcomes.

Whatever the action, the result must be greater momentum for change. Why? Because our kids don’t just deserve better—they deserve the very best we have to give.

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