Canada ranks 37th on a list of 41 rich countries for children having access to enough nutritious food, and higher-than-average rates of child homicide and teen suicide also point to a need for action, a UNICEF report says.
Over 22 per cent of Canadian children live in poverty and most issues related to kids showed no improvement or worsened during the last decade, said the 14th report from UNICEF on children's well-being amongst wealthy countries.
The mental health of Canadian teens has been declining, with 22 per cent of adolescents reporting symptoms more than once a week, said the report release Wednesday. Canada ranked 31st for the teen suicide rate, it said.
The report ranked countries in the European Union and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and put Canada in 25th place overall on children's well-being. Norway topped the list from the UN Children's Fund.
Romania, Bulgaria and Chile were at the bottom of the list based on 27 indicators. Canada has data to report on 21 indicators, including food security, unhealthy weight and bullying.
"We placed 17th in 2013 and 23rd in 2016 (overall) on similar indexes measuring how Canada's kids are doing compared with other rich countries," UNICEF Canada said in a companion report.
The main report is based on so-called sustainable development goals set in September 2015 by 193 countries that aimed to end extreme poverty and hunger, provide education, protect children from violence and fight climate change.
David Morley, president of UNICEF Canada, said countries that moved up in the rankings invested more in early child development including day care.
"When you invest in the poorest children the payoff is greater. When the safety net is stronger, families can be stronger," he said.
It is too early to say if Canada's tax-free child benefit, introduced last year, will make an impact, he said.
While many Indigenous children live in poverty, they represent only about six per cent of kids in Canada, suggesting all kids need stronger policies, Morley said.
It's a myth that Canada is the best place in the world to grow up and that the country has great air quality, the report said.
"Air quality has been improving over the past 10 years in almost all rich countries except for Canada and Turkey," the report said. Children are more vulnerable to the negative effects of air pollution because they breathe in more air per unit of body weight than adults, it said.
"Canada is, in the minds of many, a big, clean, safe and healthy nation. But the data in this report card suggest it is not so very clean, safe or healthy for its children and youth."
Canada ranked 29th of 41 countries on unhealthy weight of children. Nearly 25 per cent of young people are obese, above the average of 15 per cent, the main report said.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said the country has failed to meet the needs of many of the most vulnerable children living on reserves.
"You can't give these kids less money for education, less money for health care, less money for early childhood and deny them even basics like clean water and expect them to be doing OK," she said from Ottawa.
She noted the federal government has yet to follow repeated compliance orders issued as late as last month by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in 2016 that Ottawa racially discriminated against youth in its delivery of child welfare services on reserves.
Blackstock, whose group fought the government on the issue, said the need for equitable education and health care for First Nations children has been ignored for years.
"No political party in this country in 2017 should be able to racially discriminate against 165,000 children," said Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation in B.C.
"I think the government has so normalized this racial discrimination against First Nations children that it's really in the DNA of the government," said Blackstock, who is also a professor at the school of social work at McGill University in Montreal.