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Tens of thousands of Manitoba youth have made their voices heard in public demonstrations on many issues over the past year. Many have rallied in support of climate action or in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en First Nation, among other causes.
To any youth who have participated in peaceful demonstrations, I want to say: good work. Your parents and the other adults in your lives should be proud and supportive of your passion. As Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, I’m an independent and non-partisan officer appointed by the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, tasked with amplifying child and youth voices and upholding their rights. Regardless of where I may land on an issue, I support young people’s right to come together and raise their voices to be heard.
Article 15 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states children have the right to voice their opinions and the right to demonstrate peacefully. The government of Canada acknowledged the special place of children in society and assumed responsibility for the fulfilment of children’s rights by ratifying the UNCRC more than 30 years ago.
Manitoba is obliged to uphold all 42 articles. Those articles include the right to be protected from abuse or neglect (Article 19) and the right to live in a safe environment with access to the highest attainable standard of health care (Article 24). As Manitoba citizens, we all have a role to play in ensuring the rights of children and youth are understood and protected across our province.
Lately, my office has been hearing from several Indigenous youth who are witnessing or experiencing an increase in racism and bullying after recent Wet’suwet’en demonstrations taking place across the country. Some of the young people organizing or participating in demonstrations have reported being targeted and vilified online. Some have experienced death threats.
The violence became all too real last week when a counter-protester interrupted a round dance held at Portage and Main, where many youth had gathered. He reportedly confronted participants and physically assaulted an individual before being escorted away by demonstrators, then later police. Michael Redhead Champagne, who has been advocating for Manitoba youth for more than a decade, often through his work with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, told us Indigenous youth are telling him they have felt fearful lately when doing community organizing.
It seems many adults do not realize how their comments reverberate, often making their way down to kids’ screens. The internet and social media are also spaces where children and youth have the right to be safe and the right to be protected from abuse.
The heated disputes happening in our country now impact many people’s lives and livelihoods. As adults, we need to always remember our actions and behaviours have impacts on children and youth who are always watching, listening and seeing the standards we set for how these necessary conversations will unfold.
Racism isn’t an innate behavioural tick. It’s a social detriment learned by kids at a far younger age than most would care to believe. The racist rhetoric ramped up in recent weeks in Manitoba needs to end. I want to encourage everyone to voice their opinions, but also to remember the right to free speech doesn’t mean the right to spew hate.
Champagne agrees that we need to remind young people especially to keep raising their voices. "I think what I would want to say to the youth is, ‘Don’t give up,’" he said last week. "I think the fact non-Indigenous people are paying this much attention is the precursor to Indigenous young people being heard as the strengths and the gifts that they are."
To Manitoba children and youth exercising their rights to learn about issues and make their voices heard: I support you.
Daphne Penrose is the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, an independent officer appointed by all members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. For more on her office and role, visit manitobaadvocate.ca.
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