The COVID-19 pandemic has become the benchmark. The turning point for our children. And, friends, the results might turn your stomach.
A study issued in August by Children First Canada paints a bleak portrait of childhood in Canada, from poverty to abuse to climate anxiety to death. It’s hard to know even where to begin with the Raising Canada report, which is based on research conducted by McGill University, the University of Calgary and University of Toronto.
“There is a persistent myth that Canada is one of the best places in the world to raise kids, but the facts show otherwise,” Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada, says in a summary of the report. In 2022, Canada ranked 48th on the 193-country KidsRights Index. This year, the country has fallen to No. 81. Of the 38 affluent nations tracked by UNICEF, Canada ranks 30th for protecting its children.
The Raising Canada report identifies the top 10 threats against children: unintentional and preventable injuries; poor mental health; violence; vaccine-preventable illness; systemic racism and discrimination; poverty; infant mortality; bullying; limited physical activity and play; climate change.
The most discouraging numbers are associated with marginalized children — including racialized, disabled and LGBTQ2+ kids — facing violence and bullying.
Indigenous youth under the age of 15 experience sexual abuse at the hands of adults at double the rate of non-Indigenous youth. The report notes they are disproportionately overrepresented in the child welfare system and that rates of infant mortality (3.943 deaths per 1000 live births among the total Canadian population) are higher among Indigenous people and immigrants with lower socioeconomic statuses.
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Indigenous children make up 3.3 per cent of the Canadian pediatric population but fall victim to 30.9 per cent of preventable injuries like choking or hospitalizations related to recreational drug use, the report says.
Racism and discrimination against Asian children ballooned by 286 per cent in 2021 compared with 2020.
The incidence of online sexual luring of children increased by 815 per cent over five years.
Food insecurity among young people increased by 29 per cent, a number that might be higher, as the data was collected when COVID-19 financial supports were available.
And then there’s climate change.
“Never in human history have we had a generation predicted not to outlive the one that came before them, until now. To me, this sounds like ‘negative evolution’ — a paradox,” Dr. Shimi Kang, a University of British Columbia researcher, says in the report.
Half of Canadian youth said they were anxious about air pollution and climate change. Three-quarters were fearful of their future.
“In the summer of 2023 alone, there have been multiple reports of child deaths due to extreme weather and pollution associated with climate change, and thousands of children have been displaced or had their daily activities disrupted due to wildfires and poor air quality,” the report says.
An estimated 15,300 Canadians die prematurely each year because of exposure to air pollution.
The KidsRights Index gives the highest rankings to Sweden, Finland and Iceland, respectively. The bottom three are Afghanistan, South Sudan and Chad.
Recommendations included in the report focus on education and funding. It calls for a federal commissioner and national strategy for children and youth as well as a data strategy to track health and well-being. It advises that youth be involved in the process. Kang says: “One of the keys to this puzzle is realizing that the voices of children and youth have not been part of this conversation — and how badly that needs to change.”
“When the pandemic ended, we expected life for our kids to get better. It didn’t,” Austin says. “The research shows that children’s well-being has continued to deteriorate, and far too many kids are in a state of crisis. We cannot continue to ignore the serious threats that put children’s lives in jeopardy. Experts and advocates all agree that a better life for our kids is possible and we’re imploring all levels of government to take action now.”
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