Children as witnesses at Senate committees.

Author:Jaffer, Mobina S.B.
Position:The Cyberbullying Hearings

In December 2012, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights tabled its report Cyberbullying Hurts: Respect for Rights in the Digital Age. It followed a series of hearings in 2011 and 2012 where it closely examined the roles that stakeholders can play in addressing cyberbullying and the emerging best practices. The committee began this study by using the standard modus operandi for most parliamentary reviews - holding public meetings with experts, government officials, and representatives from stakeholder organizations. However, it was missing an important piece of the puzzle; the committee needed to hear from the children themselves. This article looks at how the committee went about the unusual task of hearing minor children as witnesses.


How do we elicit the views of young people before a Senate committee? After a review of past proceedings of other committees and the key procedural authorities, we discovered that parliamentary hearings involving youth have been rare and that there were no set rules or predetermined procedures involving meetings with minors. In the absence of well-established processes, we knew that we should proceed cautiously. While inviting minors would be a challenge, we felt that it was worth the risk.

Studying Children's Rights

In 2001, the Senate amended its Rules to establish a new standing committee to review legislation and policy relating to the implementation of Canada's domestic and international human rights obligations. Over the course of its history, the committee has spent a considerable amount of time studying children's issues and has published four separate reports dealing extensively with the human rights of children in Canada.

We looked at tough issues such as sexual exploitation, corporal punishment, bullying and poverty.

With this particular interest in children's issues by the committee, Senator Ataullahjan brought forward the idea of a study into the cyberbullying of youth. Members had been noticing a substantial rise in media reports about extreme forms of bullying over the Internet and through mobile electronic devices. We were shocked by its severity and the personal impact on students. We were also taken aback to learn of cases where young people were taking their own lives to escape ongoing harassment. Based on the seriousness of these cases and the outcry for action, Senator Ataullahjan formally proposed a study to the committee.

On November 30, 2011, the committee received the Senate's permission to undertake a review of cyberbullying of youth pursuant to Canada's obligation under the United Nations" Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under Article 19 of the international agreement, "States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse." (1) The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which oversees the implementation of the convention, has further stated that Article 19 applies to "psychological bullying and hazing by adults or other children, including via information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Internet (known as 'cyberbullying')." (2)

Why Hear from Children?

Over the course of our study, we were told time and time again of the strong relationship between young Canadians and technology and that it is a new frontier often misunderstood by adults. Dr. Faye Mishna of the University of Toronto expressed to the committee the "unmistakable generational divide between younger and older individuals." (3) This youth-adult disconnect was also pointed out by another witness, Bill Belsey, founder of, who spoke about the importance that technology plays in the lives of children, which is "like the air that this generation breathes." (4)

Several years ago, the committee had stressed the importance...

To continue reading