In most Canadian courts, a child’s opinion is rarely considered, even in custody cases. Anamika Baijnath was at the Ontario Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth until Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government shut it down in 2018. She has continued her work as a child advocate to educate the judiciary on the importance of listening to children.
Perspective: Oftentimes, the issues of children are masked by adult issues. We don’t tend to think about how young people will be impacted by policies and decisions that governments are making, whether nationally or locally. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is really significant because it led to Canada being one of the countries that actually had a position of a child advocate. Ontario had a Child Advocate’s Office. But the Convention doesn’t go far enough to embed children’s rights into policies and legislation.
Problems: Over the years, we’ve become more child-focused, but that hasn’t translated to a whole government approach. This is not a voting population, so they don’t have a particular kind of power to leverage to get the attention of the decision-makers. There isn’t a forum or an avenue for government officials to hear directly from young people. There is no coherent policy framework and no coherent way of monitoring or understanding the circumstances of young people. It’s very piecemeal.
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Priorities: I’m concerned about the young people at the fringes of the system: those in mental health institutions and in the youth justice system, young people with disabilities who can’t access proper resources and services. In locked facilities, such as in emergency secure treatment for mental health issues, young people don’t have easy access to someone who could advise them of their rights and monitor the process.
COVID has been a bit of a revelation because it’s helping us start to break apart what the nuanced experiences have been, particularly for young people who are differently impacted. It’s helped us in terms of understanding and exposing disproportional impacts more broadly, certainly with respect to racialized communities.
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Purpose: Many of the systems and institutions that are part of delivering services to children are not child-friendly. Ensuring systems, processes and values are oriented toward children’s rights is not as intuitive as many would think. My work introduces children’s rights to interdisciplinary professionals—lawyers, judges, mediators, social workers and those in child-focused organizations—so that they can centre children in decision-making.
We’re seeing young people taking up much more of a voice in the world. They’re finding their place in many different ways. I’m glad to say there are organizations and institutions that are promoting young people’s voices and giving them a more prominent role in terms of sharing what their views and opinions are, but it still often happens in a tokenistic way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “Anamika Baijnath.”
Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.
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