Many of the most marginalized and vulnerable youth in Ontario, from those living on the street to those going through the justice system, want to be part of the solutions to the challenges they face — if only adults would let them.
That’s one theme Irwin Elman, provincial advocate for children and youth, says he heard repeatedly during a listening tour he concluded yesterday.
“We often talk about youth engagement and young people being disengaged,” Elman says. “But really, young people are identifying that, no, young people are engaged. It’s adults and service providers and government and policy makers who need to be engaged in making change.”
Elman’s tour took him to eight cities: Kitchener, Waterloo, Brantford, Kingston, Belleville, Thunder Bay, Richmond Hill, and Toronto. He heard from approximately 400 children and youth facing a variety of challenges, including homelessness, racism, mental health crises, and physical and learning disabilities.
“Those rights come quite easily to many children in the province,” he says. “But there are many, many more young people and children and families than we want to think in Ontario that don’t have their rights afforded to them under the UN.”
To change this, adults have to spend more time listening to marginalized children and youth, he argues: “[Young people] can be brutally honest where adults cannot. And they can be brutally honest in a way that’s disarming and can create change.”
Elman says children’s voices fill the gap that always exists between the “nice words” and the well-meaning policies of governments and how things play out in the real world. “Young people don’t really care about the policy. Young people will say ‘Well, this is what it’s like for me.’”
Nevertheless, Elman says he sees signs of hope. The first is that the children he spoke to were optimistic their generation would be able to solve many of these problems and reform society for the better.
“The sense that ‘they are the change’ is new,” he says.
The second is that young people’s views are slowly becoming a bigger part of government decision-making: he says Ontario’s new Child, Youth and Family Services Act requires all service providers to ensure that young people participate in every decision that’s made about them.
Elman also points to a report the federal government will be submitting to the UN on how well the country is living up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He says it is being developed in a much less closed and secretive way than the last report in 2013.
“And that’s not because of the federal government. That’s because children and youth have begun to realize their rights, and particularly their right to participate, and they won’t allow it to be done in silence,” he says.
A report summarizing everything Elman heard on his listening tour should be available to the public early next year.
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