Sept. 1, 2020

Child advocates ring the alarm in new report on children in Canada

O’Brien Institute for Public Health and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute report shows COVID-19 poses direct threat to child health and well-being
Youth attend the Raising Canada Summit at Bell Studio, Calgary on October 2, 2019.
Youth attend the Raising Canada Summit at Bell Studio, Calgary on October 2, 2019. Children First Canada

A report released as children and youth head back to school outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the challenges young Canadians face.

Raising Canada 2020 outlines how the ‘threats’ faced by Canadian children, including mental illness, food insecurity, child abuse, physical inactivity, and poverty are increasing, or may increase, due to the impact of COVID-19. 

“This report is a stark reminder of the significant threats to child health and wellness in Canada likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Brent Hagel, PhD, a report co-author and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “It is also a call to action for us to address these issues and protect children's rights.”

Raising Canada 2020 is the third in an annual series of reports that track the top threats to childhood. The report is jointly published by the national non-profit Children First Canada, the O’Brien Institute and ACHRI.

The statistics are alarming

The statistics in this year’s report are alarming: One-third of children in Canada do not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood; one in three Canadians has experienced abuse before the age of 15; one in five children lives in poverty; and suicide is now the leading cause of death for children age 10 to 14. 

The odds are particularly stark for Black, Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit), and other racialized children. These children are more likely to be exposed to adverse childhood experiences such as poverty and abuse, be overrepresented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and be suspended or expelled from school because of systemic racism and discrimination. 

Attendees at the Raising Canada Summit in Calgary on Oct. 2, 2019 call for an end to the top ‘threats’ to childhood.

Attendees at the Raising Canada Summit in Calgary on Oct. 2, 2019 call for an end to the top ‘threats’ to childhood.

Courtesy Children First Canada

“Since the outset of the pandemic, we have been worried that children were being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Early indicators from this report suggest that children’s health is in jeopardy,” says Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada. “How the government chooses to respond will change the trajectory of children’s lives.”

For more than a decade, child advocacy groups have warned the state of childhood in Canada is on the decline. Canada now ranks 25th out of 41 affluent nations for protecting the well-being of children, according to UNICEF — a drop from 12th place in 2007.

Now, children and their families face additional challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report highlights how health services and surgeries for children have been cancelled or postponed, and access to social services has been limited. Daycare and school closures have impacted the education of children, and has also cut off their access to nutritional programs and safeguards against abuse.

Throughout the pandemic, children have been disproportionately affected by lockdown restrictions. This sheds light on the inequity that exists within Canadian society.

As challenging a time as this pandemic is for children, Austin says the report also highlights that along with children’s vulnerability, they also have incredible strength, resilience and wisdom.

Children must be able to freely express their views and be engaged in Canada’s recovery efforts,” says Austin. “Truly child-centred policies can only happen when we act with children, rather than acting for them.” 

Taking action on climate change

 Climate change continues to be one of the top concerns for children and youth — both its impact on their current health and also their future, says Austin.

Lyza Ells, 17, from Antigonish, N.S. says it is essential that the government take concrete action on the issues facing children and youth, such as climate change.

“While we make up a significant part of Canada’s population, we are not given a voice in the decisions that affect us,” she says. “It is crucial for our government to bear in mind our nation’s silenced youth when making decisions on important issues such as our environment and the climate crisis.”

Raising Canada 2020 has been distributed to Canadian MPs and Senators. Children First Canada, including its youth advisory council, will meet with Canada’s minister of health, Patty Hajdu, to discuss the findings of the report.

Additional report co-authors from the University of Calgary include Dr. Candace Lind, PhD, member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and associate professor, Faculty of Nursing, and Dr. Gail MacKean, PhD, member of the O'Brien Institute for Public Health and adjunct assistant professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, CSM.  

Brent Hagel is a professor in the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences at the CSM and holds a joint-appointment at the Faculty of Kinesiology. He is a member of the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the O’Brien Institute of Public Health and the Integrated Concussion Research Program

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