Globe and Mail

Anne Cools, Renegade

Saturday, March 1, 1997
Margaret Wente
The Globe and Mail

SINCE the advent of no-fault divorce, all of the pain, acrimony, bitterness and lust for revenge that accompany a failed marriage have been transferred to a new battleground: the kids. Private parental wars over support, custody and access have generated some of the fiercest public debates of the nineties. Women's advocates believe the world is full of deadbeat dads and the tax system is rigged against single moms. The backlash men's-rights groups believe moms get away with murder, because they nearly always get the kids and very often deny access to hard-working dads who fork over huge chunks of their income to support children they are seldom allowed to see.

You've got to be either fearless or idiotic to wade into this idealogical quicksand. Meet Senator Anne Cools - former feminist hero, current feminist goat, and new champion of men's rights. "She's an angel," sighs divorced father Randy Liberet. The media have different terminology. In news reports, Ms. Cools is described as a renegade, a rebel and an antifeminist maverick. Off the record, women's advocates and Liberal party operatives call her a wing nut, a fruitcake and a loose cannon.

Not to mention an ingrate. Ms. Cools, gnawing the hand of the party that awarded her a senator's job, nearly scuppered the tough new child-support legislation that Justice Minister Allan Rock ranks among his proudest accomplishments. (The Liberals have a majority of only one in the Senate, so she could have killed it by voting with the Conservatives.) She opposed the bill because it would make fathers pay a fixed amount regardless of the mother's income, because it wasn't tied to access and custody issues, and because it would strip payers (typically fathers) of their tax deductions. "It degrades fatherhood," she declared.

This isn't the first time the senator has poked a sharp stick in the eye of women's groups. It was she who said, in 1995, on International Women's Day no less, that abusive mothers are responsible for creating violent sons. "Behind every abusing husband is an abusing mother," were her words. Women's groups had conniptions. Reporters quickly summoned experts who said Ms. Cools was not only dead-wrong, but had perhaps lost her marbles. "Let's not forget the senator is an appointee," said one outraged feminist. "She does not represent women."

Feelings run high about Ms. Cools because everyone expected her to do exactly that. She is not only a woman but a black woman, and not only a black woman but a black woman immigrant. Her ideaeological credentials are flawless. In the 1960s, she was a student youth activist who spent four months in jail for her involvement in the Sir George Williams University computer riots. In the 1970s, she ran one of the first women's shelters in Canada and was frequently quoted as an authority on domestic violence. Journalists described her compassion and bravery. "How one woman works to mend broken lives," read a headline.

The Liberal party, always adept at riding the winds of social change, as quick to sign her up. She never did win a seat, but in 1984 Pierre Trudeau made her the first black senator in Canadian history. The appointment made headlines, and women's groups applauded the addition of a minority firebrand to the chamber of dozy old white men. Ms. Cools went on to make a very nice living serving on various boards and commissions, and collecting consultants' fees from the women's shelter, with which she eventually had a highly public and litigious falling-out.

How did Anne Cools change from champion of battered women to renegade antifeminist? Ms. Cools argues that she hasn't changed at all. It's the women's movement that has. "The radicals have hijacked the agenda," she said two years ago. "They see men as evil, and will stop at nothing to ensure the superiority of women." It does not help her reputation that she has been lionized by white men in the Reform party and canonized by men's-rights fanatics who can be as loopy as anyone from NAC.

And as for the facts? Well, Ms. Cools is definitely capable of overstatement. But on several important points, she's right. The child-support bill is fundamentally flawed, because changing the tax burden from (generally lower-income) payees to (generally higher-income) payers will suck hundreds of millions of dollars away from families and back to the tax man. The government itself admits this. How this tax grab will improve the lives of single mothers and children is a point the bill's supporters have completely failed to address.

And do mothers abuse their sons? Of course they do. The most reputable studies of family violence have found that mothers physically and verbally abuse their children more often than fathers do. This should not be surprising, since mothers spend agreat deal more time with their children.

This fact does not mean that most or even many mothers are abusers, or that men are innocent. But it is greatly threatening to people who have a large investment in a world view of men as perpetrators and women as victims.

Many feminists, however, will never forgive her for saying so.

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