Thursday, August 17, 2000

Mary-Woo Sims

p. A11.

Children's rights are being ignored in B.C.

I often hear from adults that children in B.C. have too many rights. As the chief commissioner of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, I am alarmed by sentiments like these, particularly given the human rights violations children and youth experience every day. Rather than having too many rights, children's rights are often ignored when developing legislation or tackling social problems.

This is one of the issues that delegates from around the world will be addressing at the Renewing Vigilance: Human Rights in the World Community international human rights conference the commission is hosting in Vancouver starting this Sunday. This conference has made me reflect on the rights we enjoy as British Columbians and Canadians. I've also been reflecting on those people we allow discrimination to continue against.

Last year, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children issued a report, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: How Does Canada Measure Up? The report found that legislation in Canada often ignores children or fails to meet the standards of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Canada signed this international agreement on May 28, 1990.

The convention sets standards on how young people should be treated and outlines their basic human rights, including the right to education, health care and economic opportunity. It also guarantees a child's right to be free from sexual and economic exploitation and from discrimination.

The B.C. Human Rights Code is intended to protect people from discrimination by making sure every person is treated with equality, fairness and respect. However, it does not protect young people from discrimination because of their age and falls short of our obligations under the convention.

While young people can file a complaint of discrimination with the commission based on grounds like race or sexual orientation, the code only protects people between the ages of 19 and 65 from age discrimination.

Many young people have told us they are unfairly stereotyped as criminal delinquents and discriminated against when they go into stores as a group. Some stores post signs in their entrance saying "only four juveniles allowed at a time" or refuse to serve young people. This is overt discrimination against young people, yet there is little our commission can do for them.

I realize I was wrong for not specifically recommending in our 1997 report, Human Rights for the Next Millennium, that children under 19 should be protected from age discrimination.

However, the commission asked the provincial government to examine all provincial legislation affecting those under 19 to make sure current and new legislation meets Canada's obligations under the convention.

In my view, the government ignored this recommendation when it recently introduced the Secure Care Act. This legislation punishes our most vulnerable children, such as those exploited by the sex trade and those addicted to drugs and alcohol, for the violations they experience. The legislation does nothing to deal with those who exploit and abuse these same children.

The Secure Care Act may be seen by some as a last-ditch effort to help such children and youth. However, the short-term removal of youth from the streets fails to address the poverty and discrimination that are the common root causes of exploitation of children.

The act also falls short of meeting the requirements under Article 19 of the convention that effective legislative, social and educational measures be taken to protect children from all forms of exploitation and abuse.

I strongly believe that an effective response to the exploitation of youth must give primary consideration to their human rights, in particular to those guaranteed under the convention. We need to address the broader social problems that lead to the exploitation of children.

We need to address the poverty that leads many children to become involved in the sex trade. We need to hold the offenders accountable for exploiting our children instead of blaming the victims. Young people are living in a world we have created for them. We as a society have the responsibility to stop the exploitation of young people.

As people arrive from around the world to attend the conference and as I renew my personal vigilance in protecting human rights, I will especially bear in mind the rights of young people.

Members of the public who are interested in attending the conference, which runs Aug. 20-24, and in hearing directly from young people about their human rights issues at a workshop on Aug. 21, can call 1-800-663-0876 or 1-604-660-6811 or go to on the Internet.

Mary-Woo Sims is chief commissioner of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission.

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Created: June 7, 2001
Last modified: June 10, 2001
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