Op-Ed: Message to Harper, Bush and Fox: Shortsighted to ignore 120 million kids

March 28, 2006

by Katherine Scott, Vice-President of Research, CCSD

When leaders of the three nations of North America and their planeloads of officials head to Cancun Mexico this week with security and prosperity on their minds, they will have plenty of serious business to talk to about.

In the year since Canada, the U.S. and Mexico created what's called the Security and Prosperity Partnership, they have taken on no less than 300 initiatives. Various committees and working groups have been tackling everything from textile and apparel labelling to port security exercises to fully harmonizing automobile production.

The trilateral agenda is jam-packed with issues, but it still comes up short.

The partnership agreement signed by all three countries last year committed our governments to developing "a North American framework to confront security and economic challenges, and promote the full potential of our people, addressing disparities and increasing opportunities for all."

So far, the attention being paid to addressing disparities is negligible. Those on the inside at Cancun will argue that like the NAFTA and FTAA before them, getting agreements on things like border transportation planning and protocols to give professionals temporary entry into each country creates a synergy that makes economic integration work for everyone.

It's the old rising-tide-lifting-all-boats argument, which you'd think would have lost its lustre by now. We have seen during the most recent period of strong economic growth in the Canadian economy that some segments of our population are not doing well at all. The working poor, new immigrants, young entrants to the workforce, single-income households, and Aboriginal people are among the boats struggling to stay afloat in the backwash.

That's one problem. In addition, the parties seem to be coming at this agreement from the point of view that security and prosperity can be dealt with apart from the daily lives of people. This, despite the fact that the partnership commits the leaders to "a trilateral effort to increase the security, prosperity, and quality of life of our citizens".

Quality of life is more than getting trucks across borders and increasing GDP growth. Yes, GDP growth is important. However, as has been observed by others, GDP does not differentiate between negative growth (e.g. rebuilding after a natural disaster that devastates lives) and positive growth (e.g. building a new lumber mill or wood finishing plant which will hire unemployed workers and sustain communities hard-hit by, shall we say, countervailing forces).

Even positive GDP growth that increasingly concentrates wealth at the upper income scale, while moderate and low-income people fall further behind, raises concerns for societies like ours that have a strong sense of community and support investment in a future that will be shared by all our children.

The children of North America are notably absent from the priorities and plans of the Security and Prosperity Partnership. That oversight is of particular concern to my organization, the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD). For the past two years, we have been working with organizations in the U.S. and Mexico to develop a series of indicator reports showing how North America's children are doing in this increasingly interdependent and connected world.

We are not comparing one country versus the other, but we are examining the trends and issues that show up when you take a continental perspective – just as the Cancun summit is doing with border security and economic growth. What we are seeing are serious disparities in the health and educational and economic opportunities for children and youth, within and between the three nations of North America.

If our leaders are going to promote the full potential of our people, as they committed to do in 2005, how can they do that without a focus on the well-being and the life prospects of the next generation?

They can't. Which is why we are calling on Prime Minister Harper – who is going to this summit as the new member of the club – to speak up on behalf of the 120 million children and youth of North America. Children under the age of 18 make up about one-quarter of the 426 million people on the continent. How they grow up is not only important to their parents, it is vital for the continuing strength of our three nations.

We would like to see greater consultation through this trilateral partnership on issues concerning families and children. So far, all the talking has been done with organizations like the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which is composed of the CEOs of Canada's leading enterprises.

Our children are growing up in a profoundly different world than the one that existed a generation ago. Research indicates that in times of major societal change, such as we are going through now, there are effects on the lives of families, which can make children's developmental transitions from infancy through to young adulthood more fragile and the outcomes less certain.

It is our shared responsibility to give children the support they need to grow up healthy and happy and prepared to find their own best place in this new world. It is a moment for shared leadership to develop new directions in public policy to improve outcomes for all the children of North America. Our hope is that the Cancun summit will seize the moment.


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