Protecting the rights of all our children

By: Alec Stratford, RSW, & Naj Siritsky, RSW

In the end, it all comes down to this: the rights and safety of our children must always be our first priority. This is particularly true in today’s political landscape, where il-considered laws and activism in some provinces are causing harm to vulnerable children by infringing upon their rights. Nova Scotia must not follow suit; instead, we must prioritize children’s well-being at a time when it is under attack.

Kelly Lamrock, New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate, has made significant findings concerning changes to Policy 713 on sexual orientation and gender identity. The policy revisions made by that province’s government have been found to violate New Brunswick’s Human Rights Act and Education Act, and children’s charter rights. 

One of the main issues is that the policy effectively grants parents a veto privilege until their child is 16, which infringes upon the child’s rights to privacy, equality, and accommodation. Lamrock has been vocal about these violations, emphasizing the need for policies that respect and uphold the rights of all children, including those from the LGBTQ+ community. Parents and guardians care for and about their children, but do not own them; children have their own distinct rights.

As Lamrock points out, Canada has a comprehensive framework that upholds and protects the rights of children. This country ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on December 13, 1991, which established a number of laws, policies, and practices affecting children. This Convention recognizes specific rights for children including the right to be heard in legal proceedings that directly or indirectly affect them. Children also have the right to special protection and opportunities that enable their development. One of the most fundamental rights is the right to identity. Every child in Canada holds the right not to be discriminated against, on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender. Furthermore, Article 19 of the Convention identifies the protection against abuse and neglect as a basic right of children. 

These rights are not just theoretical; they must be actualized. Children and youth have the right to life, survival, and development, and to be treated without discrimination. They also have the right to the protection, security, and attention that their parents or guardians can provide. Ensuring these rights are respected and protected is crucial to the well-being and development of every child. It is the responsibility of both the government and society at large to uphold these rights and ensure they are realized. 

Becky Druhan, Nova Scotia’s education minister, recently reiterated the government’s support for all members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Existing guidelines, which have been in place since 2014, state that parental or guardian consent will only be requested for primary through Grade 6 students who wish to use their preferred name, gender identity, and/or gender expression. From grades 7 through 12, consent is not required if the student is capable of giving consent. The guidelines also emphasize the importance of obtaining a student’s permission before disclosing their transgender or gender-nonconforming identity to their parents or guardians. 

Our organization, the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, has joined other organizations, health care professionals and concerned community members in calling for an update to these guidelines. Specifically, these guidelines urgently need to be updated to reflect the bans on conversion practices that were legislated in Nova Scotia and federally. No child should be subjected to harmful, illegal conversion practices. No child should be afraid that their school will refuse to support them if they reveal themselves to be queer, trans, or questioning.

The gap between policy and implementation is a pressing issue that needs immediate attention. This is especially true when it comes to protecting our transgender and nonbinary children. We urgently call on the Nova Scotia government to act and ensure these children are protected.

It is unacceptable that vulnerable children are being exploited for political purposes in the hateful backlash that has been gaining momentum in public discourse. Our priorities should be focused on their well-being, not political point-scoring. Nova Scotia has the opportunity to lead by example and show that children’s welfare always comes first.

The harmful influence of these actions on children’s mental health is alarming. The urgency is especially dire because the mounting opposition to the protection of the gender rights of children is a form of hate speech. Swift action is required from the Nova Scotia government to ensure their safety. Our children’s mental health must not be compromised.

Nova Scotia urgently needs to update its guidelines for supporting trans and gender nonconforming students. This will both create consistency across schools and protect students’ rights. Representation is also crucial; we need first-voice representatives from transgender, intersex, and nonbinary communities, along with healthcare providers trained in WPATH standards, to provide input.

Trans and queer representation in our curriculum is not just important, it’s vital. It fosters empathy and understanding among all students. An inclusive curriculum is a steppingstone towards an inclusive society. Research and first-voice advocacy illustrates how critical it is to intervene very early to prevent harm.

Unlike New Brunswick, Nova Scotia does not have a body that can hold government accountable for ensuring the rights of children are met. This exposes children to potential abuse. The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry urged for the establishment of an independent child and youth commission in 2019, underscoring the pressing need to address concerns among young people and advocate for their rights. 

This commission is envisioned not just as a regulatory body, but as a crucial platform that amplifies the voices of our children and ensures their concerns are adequately addressed. However, progress in establishing this commission has been slow, which is deeply troubling given the urgent needs of Nova Scotia’s children. Children, particularly those dealing with mental health concerns, are often unable to advocate for themselves effectively; they need someone to listen to and amplify their voices. It will be important to ensure first-voice representation in the oversight of such a commission, to include the necessary perspective of individuals who are part of historically marginalized and oppressed communities.

Karla MacFarlane, minister of community services, has acknowledged that the commission is long overdue. We remain hopeful that an independent child and youth commission will soon be available for children to contact; it is urgent that funding and legislation be established this year, to ensure that children and youth in Nova Scotia have protections from the politics of hate.

We urge the Nova Scotia government to take immediate action and prioritize the well-being of all children. Let’s ensure that our province is a safe, inclusive space for everyone. The future of Nova Scotia lies in the hands of our children, and we must do everything we can to protect them.

Alec Stratford, RSW, is the executive director and registrar at the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.

Naj Siritsky, RSW, is the professional practice and advocacy consultant at the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.

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