National Post

Monday, March 08, 1999

Alberta quietly endorses children's human rights accord
Ends 10-year opposition: Province had worried document would infringe on parents' rights

Tom Arnold
National Post

After condemning the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for the last decade as a document that tramples parents' rights, Alberta's Conservative government has quietly joined almost 200 other countries in endorsing the charter.

Alberta was one of the very few holdouts on the convention, which is close to becoming the first universally accepted human rights code.

"Its very surprising," Adrienne Snow, policy director for the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, said yesterday of the government reversal. "But it's a political move, not a signal that Alberta is about to start radically changing its policy on family and children's issues."

Pam Barrett, leader of the Alberta New Democrats, said a recent letter that outlined the change to Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, from Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta, is a positive development, but long overdue. "I'm still at a loss why they spent nearly a decade engaging in this trumped-up opposition to something that is so obviously correct and fair.

"The objections with respect to families losing their rights are just fabricated nonsense."

In a Jan. 13 letter to Mr. Chretien, Mr. Klein issued Alberta's strongest-ever statement supporting the convention, which was ratified by the federal government in December, 1991.

Mr. Klein wrote of Alberta's support for "objectives and principles" in the convention and assured the prime minister that "Alberta has a strong system of programs in place to ensure children reach their full potential and that families are able to offer them the support and encouragement they require."

He added that "as a further indication of our commitment to children and families, we would like to extend our formal support for the federal government's ratification."

Alberta had long been the only province that hadn't signed the convention, charging it could compromise the authority of the family. It has, and continues, to fear that children could use the rights granted in the document to exercise power over their parents. The government also suggested it might give children the right to obtain pornography -- by granting a right of expression and a right to information -- or allow them to associate with criminals, cults or gangs, by giving them the right of association.

Ms. Snow, whose group is currently conducting research on whether parents rights are eroded under the document, said such worries are legitimate. "It's possible that the people who are arguing that spanking ought not to be allowed could argue that spanking in some way contravenes the UN convention on the rights of the child."

Ted Morton, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said the document will encourage judicial activism. "Rights documents like this one expand both the scope and intrusiveness of the state on the family.

"When you talk about rights of the children, those are rights against whom and who is enforcing them?" said Mr. Morton, who was elected as a Reformer to be Alberta's nominee to the Senate last year. "In many instances, it is quite clear that is a right against parental influence, to be enforced, presumably, by the state."

However, supporters of the convention say children's rights are couched in terms of the family in the charter and it is meant to support families raising their children.

Canada is currently preparing its second status report on children for the United Nations. The UN chided Canada for its first report, saying national laws and policies don't reflect the best interests of the child. It also noted the country had not implemented the convention in all parts of Canada, and recommended that children's rights be coordinated at federal and provincial levels -- something not possible without Alberta's signature.

According to Mr. Klein's letter, Ottawa has Alberta's support "based on the understanding that the UN Convention does not usurp or override the authority and responsibility of parents."

Regardless, Victor Doerksen, a Conservative MLA from Red Deer, said yesterday that Alberta's position has not officially changed because the convention has not been ratified by the provincial legislature. Mr. Doerksen said his position has been long-standing and is clear. "Government's have to be careful not to intrude into the home. Parents have to be respected wherever possible."

Alberta's failure to sign the document was a key human rights issue raised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a meeting with Mr. Klein late last year.

Copyright Southam Inc.