New survey shows Canadians over-estimate health and welfare of country’s children

A majority of Canadians vastly over-estimate how well the country takes care of its children, and the number is only getting bigger.

That’s according to Children First Canada, a non-profit advocacy group committed to improving the lives of Canadian children, who released the results of their 2019 survey this week.

Those numbers show 71 per cent of Canadians believe Canada ranks in the top 10 on youth issues such as education, nutrition and mental health. However, a UNICEF-compiled ranking of 41 countries puts Canada 25th overall. UNICEF gave Canada high marks for its education system, put said poor nutrition, especially in northern parts of the country, sent its overall ranking plummeting.

Children First Canada founder and CEO Sara Austin said it’s concerning that more Canadians aren’t aware of the actual challenges.

“The gap between perception and reality seems to be getting bigger,” Austin said during an interview on Monday. “Even more Canadians rank us as a top five or a top 10 country than when we polled three years ago, so Canadians seem to think we’re getting better when in fact we’re not.”

Austin said it’s hard to say for sure why Canadians over-estimate child well-being.  Canadians are used to being world leaders in areas like health and education, she explained, and many might assume that trend has continued uninterrupted.

Regardless of why they think that, Austin said most Canadians are eager to invest additional resources in youth programs or facilities, and hat trend only increases once they learn the problem is more serious that expected. More than 90 per cent of respondents said children and youth should be a high priority.

“That’s the good news I’m taking away from these recent poll results,” Austin said. “The vast majority of Canadians really strongly believe that investing in our children matters, and they want to see action taken.”

There have been improvements along the way. Austin said child poverty has decreased in recent years, which has helped improve Canada’s overall score. However, there have also been setbacks too. She’s hoping these poll results will drive Canadians to demand better from their federal, provincial and municipal governments.

“We are one of the most prosperous nations in the world,” Austin said. “We consider ourselves one of the most democratic countries who respect the human rights of our citizens, and yet, when it comes to the well-being of our children, our track record is going backwards rather than forewords. Canadians seem to be largely unaware of that, and for me, as an advocate for children, leading a national child advocacy organization, that’s obviously disturbing.”

Survey respondents identified mental health, depression and anxiety as the biggest issues affecting Canadian children. Almost half of all respondents labeled it as one of the top issues, well ahead of bullying and online safety, which was the second choice at 34 per cent. Nutrition and fitness, education and poverty rounded out the top five.

Austin said it’s difficult to separate one issue from the other when it comes to child health. She thinks reducing things like poverty and bullying could help with a host of mental health issues.

“A lot of these issues are interwoven,” she explained. “Children who are experiencing mental health issues, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, may in fact also be dealing with growing up below the poverty line or dealing with discrimination or abuse. Many of these factors are related and children are experiencing more than one of these issues, but perhaps it’s most obviously presenting in their mental health.”

That’s especially true in Prince Albert. Organizations dedicated to child and family health, like Catholic Family Services (CFS), say poor mental health is something they see on a regular basis. The organization already offers programs specifically aimed at children to help them with things like anger management and exposure to domestic violence.”

“It’s pretty sad, isn’t it, when you think about it, that we have to have all those program, but we have them because the need is there and we feel that we have to answer that need,” CFS executive director Louise Zurowski said. “I have been here since 2002, so over 17 years now, and I have seen a higher volume of children accessing our services, and yet no funding.”

Lack of funding for mental health treatment is always a concern, but Zurowski doesn’t think it’s the biggest problem in Prince Albert. Accessibility is the main issue. Even when the resources are there, too many families are having trouble finding them.

“There are so many mental health issues out there that are not being properly dealt with,” she said.

CFS has tried to meet that need by implementing a number of new initiatives this fall, although it’s too early to say how successful they’ve been.

“We incorporate transportation into our budget. We incorporate food into our budget. If you can get a family there (and) if you can feed them, their minds are much better at absorbing the information (and) the tools that might be given to them,” Zurowski said.

The Children First Canada poll was conducted by Ipsos.