• Amoriza Gunnink

Rethinking government policies and children's rights

In Alberta, the introduction of Bill 24 has ensured even the least politically attached to join in the public policy mayhem surrounding outing children. School boards are grappling with the far-reaching consequences impacting student life, meanwhile the government and the opposition parties sway the public to their rhetoric and policies. A “rights” discourse echoes across the chasm. Whose rights are to be protected first and foremost? The child’s rights to choice, agency and privacy or the parents’ rights to protection and care and thus decision-making on all matters of the child’s life? Is there a way forward in public policy that affirms both as it relates to children’s expression of their identity and sexuality? This blog is not an attempt at an answer, but rather to contribute to the discourse and promote alternate viewpoints for consideration when construing policies and affirming a particular political stance.

The rights of children in Canada

The CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) was adopted in 1989 and ratified by the United Nations in 1990 with signatory countries bound by its regulations to promote the rights and well-being of children related to social, economic, civil, health, religious and education policy development (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). It has been influential in policy development across stakeholders, policymakers, governments and international agencies protecting children’s rights. Canada ratified the convention in 1990. As a liberal welfare state, Canada stagnates in progressive and innovative social policy development. The challenges of implementation of the CRC are notable and negotiations between the federal government and provinces on policy implementation are most often acrimonious (White, 2014; Friendly and Prentice, 2009).

Equal rights for children?

When engaging in policy-making impacting children, it is imperative to consider carefully the interpretation of the rights of children in public life. How do we understand children to be right-bearing (Brighouse, 2002), persons before the law, entitled to decide what is in their own best interest (Ayim, 1986) with freedom to act on what (s)he deems to be the best reasons for action (Brighouse, 2002)? Are children sufficiently mature and with enough experience to be capable of informed consent and judgment on their health, well-being and identity? Purdy (1992) notes that children are not suitable candidates for equal rights but instead require a protected and developmental period for rationality and moral character. According to Purdy (1992) rationality is the standard for admission of adult rights.

Distinguishing between welfare rights, agency rights, choice and interests…

Brighouse (2002) argues from a different angle that children are not yet capable of fully acting in matters concerning their own well-being and that of others and therefore distinguishes between welfare rights (those rights promoting children’s well-being and development: i.e. health and education) and agency rights (those rights involving bearers in making choices about how to act). He notes that while children enjoy equal status under the law, they require different protective mechanisms (Brighouse, 2002). Brennan (2002) further asserts the notion that children’s rights have traditionally been based on protecting “choice,” and not considered children’s “interests.” Children, thus, need to develop both immediate and future welfare and agency interests and rights. It for this reason that children’s primary right is to receive an upbringing which prepares them to develop competency to exercise their agency and welfare rights (Brighouse, 2002).

In whose hands are children’s rights and best interests?

Another question concerning children’s rights to safety, protection and best interests relates to what constitutes a reasonable degree of safety or propriety in a child’s environment or what qualifies a person as fit for caring and working with children (Ayim, 1986). The law and family legislation in Canada currently upholds the right of natural parents of the child to care and protect the best interests of the child. Is this always the case? Have we placed too much emphasis on parents’ rights and not enough on children’s rights in legislation? Alternatively, what are the ramifications of public policies that give greater authority to government agents in matters of protecting children’s rights? Do we believe teachers to be better capable of acting in children’s best interest? Ayim (1986) aptly observes:

As adults, we can learn from our mistakes. Unless the seriousness of the

consequences rules this out, children should similarly be allowed to learn

from their mistakes. It is in children’s best interest to be able to make sensible,

informed, independent judgments about what is in their best interests; it is

equally clear that it is not in a child’s best interests to depend totally on other

people’s views of what constitutes these best interests. This provides us with a

powerful meta-argument for teaching children to make personal decisions about

their best interests with as full information as possible, with sensitivity to the

impact of these decisions on other people, and with cognizance of the possible

short and long-term personal consequences. This kind of decision making,

difficult enough for adults will be more so for children and will flourish only in the

context of a non-threatening, encouraging support network, whether in the family

or school. (p.349)

Ayim (1986), therefore, proposes that children have the right to be cognizant of their rights and adults therefore foster and promote children’s ability to decide what is in their best interests. It is within above scholastic literature that a few points must be considered. Bill 24 must be embedded in socio-ecological public policies that are promotive of children’s development of competence to exercise responsibly their rights in the home, at school and in the community at large.

Hegemonic meta-narratives promoting alternative socially constructed identities and sexual orientations now dominate the public sphere to the marginalization of traditional perspectives resulting in the development of policy that excludes parental values, family cohesion, and affirmation and respect for diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Children’s right-bearing capacity and public policy development must be understood within the socio-cultural and ecological linkages, as well as the relational networks wherein the child is situated. More questions surface. Unfortunately, current political rhetoric fails to provide adequate answers. How does Bill 24 ensure all stakeholders’ rights are protected and promoted? How are we defining and redefining children’s status and parental rights before the law as a result of Bill 24?

Ayim, M. (1986). The need for legal protection of children’s rights in Canada. Canadian Journal

of Education, 11 (3), 338-352.

Brennan, S. (2002). Children's Choices or Children's Interests: Which Do Their Rights

Protect? In David Archard & Colin M. Macleod (Eds.), The Moral and Political

Status of Children (pp. 53-69). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brighouse, H. (2002). What Rights (if any) do Children Have?" In David Archard &

Colin M. Macleod (Eds.), The Moral and Political Status of Children (pp. 31-52).

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friendly, M. and Prentice, S. (2009). Childcare. Black Point: Fernwood Publishing.

Purdy, L. (1992). In Their Best Interest? The Case Against Equal Rights for Children. Ithaca:

Cornell University Press.

Spyrou, S. (2011). The limits of children’s voices: From authenticity to critical, reflexive

representation. Childhood, 18 (2), 151–65.

White, L. (2014). Understanding Canada’s lack of progress in implementing the UN Convention

on the Rights of the Child. International Journal of Children’s Rights, 22, 164-188.