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Woman of the Week: Sara L. Austin

Sara L. Austin has had a sweeping impact on children’s rights worldwide and has dedicated her life to helping kids. She is the founder and CEO of Children’s First Canada, a non-profit that focuses on educating the public and holding the government accountable regarding their policies on child poverty.

“People often ask me how I got started with this, I’ve worked with thousands of kids. I was a summer camp counsellor in Ontario and responsible to look after five or six year old kids. One of the kids told me she had been sexually abused by her stepfather and didn’t want to go home,” Austin said. “We called Children Aid’s Society and when they finally arrived, she held onto me. I had to let go and trust that we have a system that protects kids. I learned very early in life that lots of kids don’t get the start in life that they deserve. Whether as a parent or a citizen, we need to give children our very best.”

Austin launched Children’s First Canada in November 2016. “There is an idea that kids in Canada have the jackpot of life. Research shows though that we have millions of kids that are falling through the gaps. There are a lot of mental issues, and several children have experienced abuse or neglect,” Austin said. “We haven’t achieved any significant progress in child poverty over the past two decades so we are trying to build public awareness for change.”

Child poverty affects one in five children in Canada and one in three Canadian children have experienced abuse. One of the pillars of Children’s First Canada is to accomplish widespread public awareness and to have a significant impact on the media in educating people on the relevance of child poverty. “We are doing after-school programs or mentoring. We are bringing these organizations together to jointly advocate together and to bring forward solutions that are evidence based,” Austin said. “It is a combination of policy influence and advocacy to make a difference for children.”

Austin launched the non-profit in Calgary, motivated by the Children First Act, a provincial law in Alberta that protects children and is one of the strongest child protection acts in Canada. Her hope was to inspire the rest of the country to follow suit.  “I was inspired by the social innovation in the city of Calgary and the province of collective impact as well as the role of the private sector,” Austin said.

Previously, Austin worked at World Vision and held a number of positions including Director of the President’s Office and Policy Advisor for Child Rights and HIV/AIDS at World Vision Canada, Senior Advisor for Child Rights at World Vision International, and Manager of Operations at World Vision Thailand.  “I started researching children in South East Asia and I was directly interacting with children in prostitution and brutal child labour,” Austin said. “We can’t treat children as objects, they are experts in their own lives. They have their own views on how things can get better. It has been a consistent thread throughout my career.”

One of Austin’s proudest achievements was creating the ‘Optional Protocol’, an international UN law that allows a child, or an NGO, to act on behalf of the child to launch a complaint if their human rights aren’t being protected through international law. The protocol was passed in 2014. “The law had been discussed for children for decades, but it hadn’t been developed. That was what prompted me to do my master’s degree at Oxford University,” Austin said. “It was a bittersweet moment, but at the same time the Canadian government didn’t support it and still hasn’t signed onto the protocol. The new government has pledged to sign onto the protocol and we are following the government to hold them accountable.”

Along with helping children, Austin is also a huge advocate for women. She won the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) top 100 award in 2010 and also sits on the advisory board for the organization. “WXN celebrates women leaders across the country and their motto is ‘We inspire smart women to lead’,” Austin said. “They celebrate women from all walks of life. They provide mentorship opportunities as well.”

When Austin is taking a break from work, she loves to go skiing with her family and be out in nature. She also enjoys biking and hiking in Calgary. “Having a family keeps me grounded every day. I flew home and it was nice to come home to my own son and be reminded everyday how lucky I am to provide for and care for my own son,” Austin said.

Austin is a leader for advocacy relating to children and she teaches us how to stick up for the people who need us most. Her life-changing impact on an international and national level makes Canada a better place for kids to live in and gives public awareness to the fact that child poverty still exists today.

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Is Toronto stuck as the child poverty capital or can it raise a village?

Toronto is one of the most liveable cities in the world, but if you live in poverty with your children, it’s quite a different story. Ranging from long daycare subsidy waitlists, high rent, extraordinary transit costs, and expensive food, raising a family can seem nearly impossible.

Child poverty is a difficult pill to swallow and Toronto has been dubbed the Canadian capital in a report called ‘Divided City’ that was released in early November 2016. The report said that Toronto has the highest rate of low-income children in an urban area at 26.8 per cent.

Two years ago in November 2015, Toronto approved its first-ever poverty reduction plan after a report was released entitled ‘The Hidden Epidemic’, which outlined the impacts of child poverty in the city. Though child poverty has decreased from 29 per cent in 2009 to 26.8 per cent, it still impacts specific neighbourhoods in Toronto. The 2016 report is the first update since ‘The Hidden Epidemic’ and shows that child poverty has decreased overall, but is now concentrated to particular areas such as Regent Park, where 58 per cent of children live in low-income households. Families struggle to pay rents, using over 30 per cent of their income on rent (the threshold to be considered low-income) and children end up missing out on important recreation activities and parents struggle to feed their kids.

Unfortunately, with budget cuts the poverty strategy has been put on the back burner and important investments for children such as affordable housing and funding for recreation and daycare subsidies is facing debilitating cuts. The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Family Service Toronto with Ontario Campaign 2000, Colour of Poverty and Social Planning Toronto came together to create the updated report to emphasize the need for City Council to stick to their poverty reduction goals and avoid cuts as much as possible.

One of these goals needs to be affordable housing. Currently there are nearly 100,000 people on the affordable housing waitlist and helping families to obtain housing needs to be a first priority to help reduce poverty for families. If most of your money goes towards paying rent, it is nearly impossible to escape the spiral of poverty. One third of families with children under the age of 18 live in unaffordable housing. The report also highlights that a lone parent living on Ontario Works would have to pay 107 per cent of their income in order to live in inner-city Toronto. This pushes families out to areas with less transit and away from many of the jobs in the city. Affordable housing in inner-city Toronto needs to become a priority immediately.

One solution that City Council discussed in the Executive Committee is the poverty reduction goal of providing low-income TTC fare cuts. This will help transit users to better afford their commute to more available jobs and help alleviate the pressures of living a low-income lifestyle. Executive Committee passed the ‘Fair Pass Program’ that would lower the adult single fare by 33 per cent and the adult monthly pass by 21 per cent unanimously. The program, if approved by council, will be implemented in March 2018.

Though the city is working towards implementing small measures as a part of their poverty reduction program, all cuts that involve children-led programs including housing, recreation and daycare subsidy, need to be avoided. Oftentimes, it seems that children get left behind in the wake of transit-focused initiatives when it comes to the city council budget. Most importantly, affordable housing solutions need to be offered immediately, including portable housing, recognizing the need for affordable housing based on using more than 30 per cent of a parent’s income on rent and changing rent control guidelines.

Children are the city’s most important priority and putting them first is the only way to make Toronto Canada’s best city. Every child deserves to play in a safe home without pests, and learn how to swim or play tae kwon do. Families also need access to healthy food and equitable employment opportunities where their children are in safe daycares so that parents can obtain employment or go to school. Only when Toronto loses its reputation as the child poverty capital will it be a safe place for families to live. Only at that point will the city of Toronto truly be a considered a village that raises a child.