Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that despite this country’s global reputation as a protector of children’s rights, the federal government continues to fall short on numerous fronts. The needless detention of children for immigration purposes is a heart-wrenching example.
For over a decade, our laws have clearly stated that children should only be detained as a “last resort.” Despite this, hundreds have been placed in facilities that resemble medium-security prisons.
These children are not being held for the purpose of public safety, but rather because they are believed to constitute a flight risk or there are problems with identification. Others live in detention facilities without being formally detained because their parents prefer that they are kept together – in some cases, these children are Canadian citizens.
To address ongoing concerns raised by lawmakers, advocates and the general public, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale released a ministerial directive to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in November, aiming to improve conditions for children caught in our immigration system.
While this new directive does not ban the detention of minors, it imposes stricter limits which are in line with our international legal obligations. In particular, it prohibits the segregation of minors and requires that the best interests of the child come first in all decisions.
The directive also tasks the CBSA with actively seeking community-based alternatives to detention for minors under its custody instead of keeping them in detention and separating them from their families. These alternatives include in-person or voice reporting, community supervision and cash or performance bonds.
While this is an encouraging first step, the government must couple these reforms with the means to ensure their effective and lasting implementation.
Currently, the Red Cross has been given a two-year contract to provide monitoring of detention facilities across the country and report exclusively to detention authorities. Without undermining this organization’s commendable work, that arrangement — which only provides the public with an annual report of findings and recommendations — leaves little room for them to provide independent oversight.
This grave shortcoming would be solved by establishing an external, rather than a subordinate, oversight body, empowered to monitor the CBSA’s activities and investigate complaints by clear legislation.
More broadly, the government should consider amending the country’s laws and regulations to reaffirm that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all detention decisions that affect children. It should also provide increased training and resources for decision-makers to ensure that they adequately consider the best interests of the child.
By holding future governments to the highest possible standards these changes would not only ensure that the detention of children truly becomes a measure of last resort, but would also promote consistency across Canada. Currently, there are significant variations between facilities across the country, especially with regard to infrastructure, services and the justifications used to detain children.
A government that claims to be committed to openness, transparency and accountability must move beyond half measures and move forward towards achieving lasting solutions.
In 2012, Canada was criticized across the globe following a scathing report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning the treatment of children in its immigration system.
Next year, the committee will return to Canada to determine if progress has been made. By taking these decisive steps, Canada would demonstrate that it can and will do more to ensure that our most vulnerable children are treated with dignity and respect.
This is Canada’s opportunity to show true leadership — and to live up to the image it has of itself.
Mobina S.B. Jaffer is a senator representing British Columbia. Victor Oh is a senator representing Ontario.
This article appeared in the November 27, 2017 edition of The Hill Times.