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Speech - Budget Implementation Bill, 2022, No. 1

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to the budget implementation act. A few weeks ago, I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote address at a conference led by Campaign 2000, a leading group in the fight against child poverty.

I remarked then that when I was first appointed to the Senate in December of 2018, I could have never imagined the societal upheavals that would follow soon after: the murder of George Floyd, the rising prominence and the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, climate emergencies becoming increasingly prevalent in Canada and around the globe, economic crises and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put, Canadian society, our views and priorities have changed so much in such a short amount of time.

Of course, COVID was the accelerator, forcing us to examine the gaps in our society we had ignored for so long. It reinforced for Canadians that an economy is about people and that, regardless of the stock market or the annual GDP, if Canadians are living in poverty, struggling to access services or unable to build a life for themselves and their families, then, colleagues, our economy is not working.

COVID taught us once more about the collective imperative of our economy and that it only truly works if it works for all Canadians. Our approach to public policy has not reflected this collective obligation for over half a century, and we are now living with the consequences of these decisions.

Lack of housing, inadequate and insufficient public services, food insecurity and so many other issues are rooted in an approach to public policy that has forgotten that our role as parliamentarians is to build our country, our society, on a vision of equality and of equity for all.

Lacking in some significant ways, Budget 2022 is, in my view, a timid step in the right direction for many Canadians. For many others, it falls short. I want to take some time this evening to discuss what this budget means for children and youth. There are some good things in the budget. One of the most important investments announced was $625 million over four years for child care infrastructure.

As I outlined last year, universal and affordable child care will have life-changing effects for millions of families, unleashing the economic potential of parents — mainly women — and ensuring more children have the early care and education that can set them on a path of a life of happiness, success and productivity.

The agreements with provinces and territories to lower costs are going to increase demand and address the need for physical space. This investment is needed and it is timely.

The budget also includes several other important commitments, including a $4 billion housing accelerator fund that would seek to build 100,000 homes in the next five years, a $25 million pilot project to make menstrual programs available to all who need them and $5.3 billion over five years for dental care. These new programs will directly impact millions of Canadians for the better. In this respect, the government is to be congratulated.

Nonetheless, I do feel that, in some important aspects, this budget fails to tackle some of the most pressing social issues and presents a vision for the future that is, in large part, timid and somewhat lacklustre.

Colleagues, despite all the good things that Budget 2022 does, I believe that, overall, it has left children and youth behind at a time when they need our support the most. One in five children in Canada lives in poverty; for status First Nation children, it’s one in two.

The increased cost of living has made it harder for more Canadians to make ends meet and has increased the struggle for those who barely got by before. Yet, the budget is short on providing increased income supports for families, whether through an increased Canada Child Benefit or any other supports.

One third of food bank users are children and one in eight families are food insecure. Yet, despite the admission that food insecurity will be increased due to the war in Ukraine, little has been done in the budget to address this pressing issue.

UNICEF Canada’s most recent data indicates that only 55% of children and youth report a high level of child life satisfaction, while more than a quarter report feeling sad or hopeless for long periods of time. I have heard from many stakeholders in the pediatric medicine world that this budget offers little in the way of meaningful solutions to address youth mental health issues.

By applying a lens that focuses on children’s needs and rights, it becomes evident that this budget contributes to a status quo that is not serving our children very well. Therefore, I would like to take a few minutes to discuss where bold and urgent action is needed to improve the status quo by sharing a few of the highlights from Canada’s recent review by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The committee’s concluding observations were published last week, painting a bleak picture of Canada’s performance and outlining the ways that Canada must change if it respects the rights of children.

At the outset of its report, the committee called Canada’s attention to issues surrounding the independent monitoring of rights: non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, abuse and neglect, children deprived of a family environment and the standard of living. They point to elements as fundamental as the right to life and survival and development as areas that require significant growth here in Canada. While this may not be surprising, it ought to be very disturbing for us.

Regarding independent monitoring, the committee urged Canada to establish a federal advocate for children similar to the one that I have championed in the past. This would be key to ensuring that all work at the federal level, including future budgets, is considered through a children’s rights and well-being lens.

On discrimination in Canada, the committee was deeply concerned about:

(a) The discrimination against children in marginalized and disadvantaged situations in the State party, such as the structural discrimination against children belonging to Indigenous groups and African-Canadian children, especially with regard to their access to education, health and adequate standards of living;

(b) The apparent disparities in the treatment of children and their rights within the different regions and territories, especially with regards to children with disabilities, migrant children, children of ethnic minorities and others.

The committee went on to call for the end of structural discrimination in Canada. Budget 2022 does include some elements to continue tackling racial discrimination, but we would do well to hear this reminder of how grave these issues are. We would do well to understand that we are not doing enough in this area.

On the right to life, survival and development, the committee called on Canada to fully implement the Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The committee also recommended Canada implement a national strategy on the prevention of violence against children, strengthen its preventative measures aimed at avoiding the removal of children from their families and revise its strategy to address water and sanitation issues on reserves.

Notably, regarding child poverty, the committee observed that Canada should:

Ensure that all children and their families living in poverty receive adequate financial support and free, accessible services without discrimination . . .

These are some of the many areas where Canada would do well to improve. But the unfortunate truth is that we didn’t need the UN to tell us about these issues because they are well known to us. This report was a reminder of a truth we know, a reminder that we need to be more ambitious in how we seek to ensure the rights of children are respected. So it makes me all the more disappointed with the budget and with its timidity.

The review by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concludes with a reminder that, in addition to our failures in a number of policy areas, we lack a comprehensive approach to ensuring the rights of our children and ensuring their well-being. Colleagues, this is an observation that should not surprise us. How do we get to our destination if we don’t know where we’re going? How do we build something better and stronger without a plan?

We will never get to that destination if we don’t know where we’re going and we will never build something stronger without that plan.

So what should we be doing?

First, Canada has not implemented comprehensive legislation on children’s rights; this creates an important gap in our vision.

Second, we don’t have a strategy. We lack a comprehensive approach to ensuring the rights of our children and for ensuring their well-being; a strategy to bring together the resources, ideas and energy currently being expended; a strategy that defines our targets and desired outcomes; a strategy that identifies the indicators that we would use to measure success and progress and that will help us to understand if we’re advancing in our vision.

None of the necessary elements of success currently exist, and we need to change that. Colleagues, on many social issues, Budget 2022 will have a positive impact, although it fails to consider the many challenges facing our children and youth and their families. The status quo has left many behind, and it is time we identify a path toward progress.

I am looking forward to working with you all on this. Meegwetch, thank you.