How do you measure the state of our country? Most people turn to the strength of the loonie, the latest employment numbers or Gross Domestic Product.
What about the number of Canadian children going to bed hungry? Or the percentage of teens living with stress and anxiety?
The number I keep in mind is 25. You won’t find it splashed across the front pages, but that’s our ranking as a country, out of 41 wealthy nations, in terms of child and youth well-being. If our performance were a grade, we’d barely be passing, coming in behind nations with much smaller economies, including Estonia, Poland and Czech Republic.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the need for federal metrics on well-being. UNICEF, a global leader in children’s rights, has been crunching those numbers for young Canadians. The result is 125 indicators of well-being in an historic index released last month. Measuring everything from how children feel about school to their sense of belonging and connection to the environment, the index is a snapshot of what it’s like to grow up in Canada. And the image isn’t pretty.
Just 55 per cent of Canadian children report high levels of life satisfaction; less than half feel positively about school; 1 in 3 experience weekly symptoms of mental distress and 1 in 4 are lonely; one quarter are regularly bullied. The measure of a country is how it protects, empowers and values its children—and we aren’t measuring up.
“Canada is in the middle, and we shouldn’t be,” says David Morley, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada.
We have the wealth and civil society apparatus to provide for every child, but children’s well-being hasn’t been measured or made a priority, says Morley. That’s why the index is so important. “We don’t know enough about how children are doing. And we assume that because we’re a wealthy nation, our children are alright. But they are not.”
I work with young volunteers from across the country on the issues that matter most to them. In recent years, the issue that comes up most has been mental health and well-being. That’s why young Canadians lead campaigns to make their schools and communities more inclusive, champion reconciliation and advance accessibility. They are putting in the work—but protecting the well-being of their childhood is not their responsibility.
We adults have to come through for them. That means advocating for outcomes with clearly defined metrics, and voting for the policy solutions that will make a real difference in countless lives, like more support for accessible childcare.
We need big solutions from all sectors of society for these big, systemic problems. But there’s something closer to home that every parent can do too, something I’m still working on as a new dad. Just over half of Canadian youth report feeling a sense of belonging at home. Parents have more demands on our time and more stress in our lives than ever before. But if we slow down, make space for family and talk about well-being, checking in with each other often, we can start to foster that belonging.
Our children deserve better than 25th place.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.