By Christina Thiele

This year the United Nations will celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and Canada will celebrate 21 years of our commitment to the UNCRC.

I bring it up because every country in the world has ratified it (except for 3) making it the most ratified international convention in the world. It’s important because it was the first time that many world leaders and countries recognized that children and youth are individual rights holders who have some basic rights.

Yet, in BC, there is still little awareness of Canada’s obligations to children and youth under this Convention. Within our communities, governments, schools, and even families, the Convention is largely invisible.

Do you know what rights children and youth are entitled to? When you hear that children and youth have a special set of rights, what comes to mind?

I’ll share with you what others have shared with me:

“It doesn’t matter to me that I have rights under the UNCRC because the government will just tear up my rights card anyways.”

While it’s true that the rights of young people are not always respected, progress has been made. Historically children were the “property” of their parents and childhood was a pesky time for adults because it meant that children were too weak to work or take on “adult” tasks. Childhood was an annoying period of waiting for adulthood. Now we recognize children and youth as rights holders and childhood and adolescence is generally accepted as an important developmental and spiritual time that should be protected. We have laws that protect young people from being trafficked, going to war and social policies that ensure young people have access to public spaces (parks, playgrounds), programs, and schools. In the context of human history, these are all relatively new concepts. Things do change, especially when we are working together as a group.

“Child rights are not necessary for kids in Canada because children here have it “pretty good”. If anything, we should be focusing on children’s rights in developing countries.”

Rights are universal and children in British Columbia face many challenges, including poverty, lack of access to the best healthcare possible, racial discrimination, barriers to meaningful participation in society, and drastic cuts to their education system.

“Children’s rights compete with adults’ rights and if children find out they have rights, they will be more difficult to control and/or discipline.”

Rights come with responsibilities. Embedded in the UNCRC rights include the rights of parents, guardians, and caregivers. Research shows that young people who learn about their rights also learn about their responsibilities are more respectful of others.

So how can you exercise your rights?

  • Learn what rights you have
  • Speak up respectfully, but speak up. Refuse to be silent when you see a lack of respect for other people’s rights
  • Learn how to report violations to address things like bullying, cyber-bullying, ageism, homophobia, racism, or discrimination of any kind
  • Find and join groups that interest you and work to improve conditions for everyone
  • Become a mentor for other youth
  • Learn about issues facing children and youth in other parts of the world

The next question is when should you exercise your rights and when is the time to build community? Um … right away!!

Here are some things you can do right now:

Yes, in the last 20 years many things have improved for children and youth in Canada, but let’s not wait for another 5, 10, or 15 to name the barriers that children and youth face and do something about it.

BC has the highest poverty rate in Canada and everyday young people in our communities go to bed hungry, can’t afford healthy food, battle with head lice and bed bugs, are ignored because of their age, cannot access the health care they need, are discriminated against, are not consulted on decisions that affect them, and are denied the opportunities to practice their culture and traditions. All of these are violations of the basic rights of children and youth. We should never settle for acceptable levels of poverty, or “good enough” … this is human dignity we’re talking about.

So let’s begin by hi:yay̓əs. Exercise your rights, build bridges in your communities however you define it, take the opportunity to meaningfully participate, and look for what brings us together.

Christina Thiele is the Communications and Child Rights Project Coordinator for the Society for Children and Youth of BC and serves on the board for the Environmental Youth Alliance. Planning and developing child rights projects keeps her busy during the day. By night she tends to a pretty feeble/embarrassing balcony garden, makes jam and wine, and can be spotted riding her bike wearing the most colourful helmet she could find. 

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