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Tuesday, May 11, 1999Ottawa buries plan for equal parenting rights
Groups slam response: Minister wants more consultation before changing custody law
Sheldon Alberts and Richard Foot
Shared-parenting groups are threatening to campaign to defeat Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, in the next election because of her decision to postpone for three years controversial amendments to Canada's child custody laws that could give divorcing mothers and fathers equal rights.
Ms. McLellan yesterday announced Ottawa's strategy to reform the Divorce Act by replacing the concepts of sole custody of and access to children by one parent with "child-centred" rules that strengthen the roles of both parents.
But she effectively delayed the introduction of legislation until May, 2002 -- or possibly later -- by launching a new round of public consultations on the government's plans.
"This is a lovely, warm, and fuzzy (strategy) with no teeth and no commitment. We do not need another report," said Heidi Nabert, president of the National Shared Parenting Association. "If the elected officials here in Ottawa don't take notice . . . I am going to suggest they are not going to be here in three years."
Members of grassroots parents groups across the country said the Liberal government is simply unwilling to change the divorce law before the next federal election, partly for fear of angering feminist groups opposed to giving fathers and non-custodial relatives new rights.
"They've decided not to put their political butts on the line, instead of looking out for the interests of thousands of children in this country," said Mike LaBerge, president of the Calgary chapter of the Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society.
The disappointment of such groups follows several days of anticipation that the government would quickly adopt recommendations from a Senate-Commons committee that demanded dramatic reforms to the Divorce Act.
Fathers' rights groups complained that the current laws allow custodial parents, most often mothers, to effectively prevent fathers and paternal grandparents from having a role in their child's rearing.
After hearing from 500 witnesses during two years of emotional and often adversarial hearings, the committee endorsed the legal concept of "shared parenting," which would give mothers and fathers equal rights after divorce.
Ms. McLellan's strategy backs a "less adversarial approach" in family law that replaces the terms "custody" and "access" with "clearly defined" language that promotes involvement by both parents.
The government plans to shift family law away from "outdated concepts of child 'ownership' " but it does not explicitly endorse the term "shared parenting."
"We don't want to talk about rights. We don't want to talk about proprietary concepts like custody. We want to talk about values like shared responsibility," she said.
Some reformists commended Ms. McLellan yesterday for at least recognizing the concept of shared parenting. Melynda Jarrat of the New Brunswick Shared Parenting Association also applauded the government's endorsement of a proposal to allow children an independent representative in custody proceedings. But Ms. Jarrat said there is no good reason for further public consultation.
"Many families cried and bared their souls on that committee floor," she said. "I'm sure they're very disappointed by this delay. We've had three phone calls already this afternoon from fathers and mothers trying to see their children. It's just a bunch of malarkey to delay this thing another three years."
Florence Knight, of the Alberta branch of the Canadian Grandparents Rights Association, said changes to the divorce laws should be enacted now, to prevent the kind of teenage violence that erupted in the school shootings in Colorado and Taber, Alta.
"Kids out there need to be rooted, to have contact with both parents," she said. "All this violence in the schools, I'm just shocked that Minister McLellan can't see the light. She's shirking her responsibility."
Karen Selick, a family lawyer in Belleville, Ont., said that while reforms dealing with shared parenting would be welcome, a delay won't "make much difference." The legal atmosphere of divorce and custody cases is changing without new legislation, she said.
"Men have become a lot more assertive about seeking custody, at least joint custody or generous visiting rights," she said. "And the public mood about such things has changed. But something from the government would still be helpful."
The justice minister said Ottawa cannot immediately proceed with legislation because the federal government shares jurisdiction over child custody and access laws with the provinces. While Ottawa's bill covers custody in divorce cases, provincial laws hold sway in cases where parents are separated or were never married.
"We don't want to get into a situation where we pre-emptively and prematurely would amend the Divorce Act, thereby unwittingly create a situation where we have one set of language in the Divorce Act and another set of language for those who separate pending divorce, or those who were never married in the first place," Ms. McLellan said.
"What we want to do if possible is make sure that when we change the law, we all change it together."
Ottawa is also linking public debate on its custody strategy with a mandated five-year review of federal child support laws, which is not due until spring of 2002.
A federal election is expected as early as 2001, putting actual legislation in jeopardy if there's a new Liberal leader, or a new government elected at the time.
Danny Guspie, executive director of National Shared Parenting Association in Toronto, called on supporters to launch a massive phone, fax, and e-mail campaign to the prime minister, to voice their displeasure. And he vowed to make Ms. McLellan a particular target, noting she only won her Edmonton seat by 1,100 votes.
"I think she is really staking her political future by coming out with a response like this," Mr. Guspie said. "A thousand votes is a pretty shaky majority to hold your seat by. I think that if we don't see some action on this that Minister McLellan is not going to be returning to Parliament."
Ms. McLellan also came under fire -- although somewhat friendlier -- from Liberal members of the Commons-Senate committee.
MP Roger Gallaway, committee co-chair, said he was pleased with the content of the government response, but complained that thousands more children and parents will suffer during the delay.
"Three years is a long time and there is a lot of people out there who are really hurting and three years is not acceptable to them," he said.
Senator Anne Cools, another outspoken advocate of increased children's rights, said "there is no excuse" for further delay. If the Liberals wait until 2002, "we'll be gone by then. It'll be a new government in charge," she said.
Ms. McLellan protested that the three-year deadline for completing the review "doesn't necessarily mean that it will take three years."
She promised the government will also consider beefing up Criminal Code penalties to discourage false accusations of abuse that are sometimes made during custody battles. The government will also consider, when detailing guiding principles to child custody in any legislation, spelling out a specific role for grandparents, she said.
Jay Hill, the Reform critic on divorce issues, worried that legislation will actually be delayed in excess of three years because the government will need time to draft a bill following the public consultations. "It is going to take . . . a minimum of three years before this minister does anything more than talk," he said.
But Bonnie Diamond, executive director for the National Association of Women and the Law, applauded Ms. McLellan's approach.
"We're very heartened that she's moved it away from an emotional debate to a rational discussion."
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