CYC-Online 50 MARCH 2003
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Optimism in dark times

Richard C. Mitchell

While these are without doubt dark times, I remain optimistic. As I write this, some members in the international community are again preparing for war, one that millions of citizens in democratic nations declare they do not want. The largest political demonstration in its history occurred this past week-end in the United Kingdom. Through terrorist acts, extremists have created a genuine crisis in democracy, one that threatens to undermine race relations, domestic security, NATO and the United Nations. Notwithstanding this backdrop, I recall hearing a speech by a passionate fellow-Canadian – former UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Stephen Lewis – musing upon similar dark times. I find myself agreeing with his analysis: “If there is any real hope, it must be with the Convention on the Rights of the Child." During periods of doubt or confusion, I recall his integrity, passion and human rights commitments to children and these have frequently shaped and influenced my professional choices and academic values. Indeed, if there is any real hope that the tomorrow we hand on to young people may be any less threatening or toxic than our today, moving the children's rights agenda forward is one viable approach.

For over a decade, I have studied the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (or CRC) throughout the global community. An astonishing 191 nations have signed the CRC in under a decade making it the most popular human rights treaty in history. Under this important ratification process, an evaluation occurs each five years, Canada's Second Report on the CRC will be reviewed in September in Geneva. I believe this unprecedented coming together is primarily due to the decade-long consensus building that took place between the Year of the Child in 1979 and 1989 by a globally representative UN Committee of 42 nations. Without resorting to hyperbole, it could be said that consensus on this grand scale may not occur again.

In 1999, while employed as a practitioner in a British Columbia children's facility, I completed my graduate research (over a period of some years!) by locally implementing the Convention in a widespread public awareness campaign. At the time, I did not fully appreciate that policy research of this type had not yet occurred in Canada or in many other nations, and our recent Romanow Commission deliberations highlight that young people's voices in healthcare are still under-represented. In 2001, after an 18 year front-line career in my provincial education, protection, healthcare and youth justice systems, I travelled to Scotland's Stirling University to accept their recognition with a doctoral scholarship in Sociology and Social Policy. Since then, I have also become a part-time research assistant with Professor Andy Kendrick in Glasgow who recently wrote a review of his “typical month" on these same electronic pages. (View here)

This move has afforded me comparative and often critical lenses through which to view my own country's progress in this new field of children's policy. While initially showing leadership in the early 1990s when our former prime minister co-chaired the World Summit for Children, Canada is now measurably languishing in implementing children's rights – particularly the right to participate in relevant policy discussions and change. I consider this state may have something to do with the values of our closest neighbour the US whose government has not ratified the CRC – a position shared only by Somalia in the international community. It is worth respectfully pointing out that notwithstanding many philosophical and ideological arguments, 141 nations have ratified this human rights treaty for kids and been able to find common ground for their own domestic children's agenda. Here in the UK, notions of children's rights and implementation of the CRC have taken on a higher, more socially, theoretically and politically acceptable profile. I consider this state may have something to do with the variety of theoretical and cultural constructions of children made available through the sociology of childhood discourse, and not simply the dominant notions found in traditional developmental and medicalized frameworks.

For example, Scotland's new parliament has enshrined the principles of the CRC explicitly in recent protection, education, and disability legislation with visible progress in new social policy for children. As a result, consultations and discussions regarding appointment of a national Children's Commissioner “with a mandate to protect and promote children's rights“ have been successful with second reading of the associated bill having passed and a third due shortly. This contrasts sharply to trends such as those in my home province of British Columbia where the Child, Youth and Family Advocate, its office, and internationally regarded legislation were rescinded and repealed by the newest provincial government. This occurred without consultation with children or young people, and is in clear violation with both the principles and the intent of our international obligations under CRC Article 12.

My present research progress here allows me to look forward to my return to Canada. I remain enthusiastic about the potential for meaningful contribution through social policy analysis, research and instruction of professionals planning to work with young people “perhaps it has something to do with De Bono's theory of six-hat thinking. I continue to wear the optimistic yellow hat despite much evidence to the contrary. While little domestic theoretical or empirical research is available to illuminate this emergent human rights and children's policy field, I have found a broader, deeper discourse in the United Kingdom for comparative study. I would encourage anyone in practice with children and young people, and anyone engaged in research or policy to familiarize yourself with this rights-based approach to our field “you might also find grounds for optimism!

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