Regina Leader-Post

Monday, May 17, 1999

NSPA turning up heat

Seeking changes to the Divorce Act

of The Leader-Post

Shots were fired in the dispute surrounding Canada's Divorce Act at a National Shared Parenting conference Sunday in Regina.

This time, the target was federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan and her announcement on May 10 that recommendations for changing the country's child custody laws would be shelved for at least three years, pending consultation with the provinces.

In an attempt to speed up the process -- and to pressure McLellan -- representatives of the National Shared Parenting Association (NSPA) announced Sunday that they will be sending letters to all premiers, provincial party leaders and territorial leaders, asking them if they support the passage of shared parenting legislation.

The letters will also ask the politicians if they support the transfer of approximately $500 million in tax revenue from the federal government to the provinces to finance improvements in the administration of family law.

According to Danny Guspie, executive director of the National Shared Parenting Association, the leaders will have 45 days to respond to the letters, which will then be made public. Non-responses will be deemed to be in favour of the association's position.

"In the realm of politics, sometimes in order to speed things up, you have to embarrass the government in order to put it very clearly to them that what they are proposing is not acceptable," said Guspie.

The tactic was applauded by a member of McLellan's own party.

"There has to be a public movement to pressure the political process and politicians," said Liberal MP Roger Gallaway.

Gallaway was co-chair of a joint Commons-Senate committee on child custody. Last December, the committee presented McLellan with 48 recommendations on changing Canada's child custody laws. The recommendations included replacing the concept of one parent with sole custody with the idea of "shared parenting" and amending the act to state that both parents are entitled to a close and continuing relationship with their children in the event of a divorce.

On May 10, McLellan announced the federal government's strategy to reform the Divorce Act, which would see legislation based on many of the Commons-Senate committee's recommendations.

But those changes won't come until after a new round of public consultations, by May 1, 2002 at the earliest.

Gallaway said he disagreed with McLellan, saying the time has come to move on the issue.

"She has laid out a framework whereby she has accepted virtually all of (the committee's recommendations), with two exceptions," he said. "What is the need now for further study? Is this (framework) doublespeak, or is this in fact a sincere statement that this is the legislative path that will be followed?

"If it is, let's start moving in that direction."

Others at the conference also had harsh words for McLellan.

"It's a political response, trying to weave a careful path between current vested interests, with whom the government agrees, and the desire of the public for change," said Reform MP Paul Forseth, a member of the Commons-Senate committee.

"It's nonsense, it's just a cop-out," said J.A. Michie, a divorced father of three from Vancouver attending the conference. "Everybody knows it's unfair. There's no way in the world that anyone can stand in front of me and say that it makes sense for a loving, capable father to see his children four days a month."

Forseth said that the three-year delay was noy necessary.

"The consultation has been done," he said. "That's the road map to fix (the Divorce Act.) The Liberals have got to realize that they will lose political support if they're not prepared to govern more in line with what mainstream Canadians want."

In his hour-long speech to an almost entirely male audience of about 40, Forseth spoke about the problems faced by fathers under the current legislation. He said that the laws have created a system where men face huge obstacles in trying to maintain a relationship with their children.

"When divorce occurs, the courts are still operating in the old, retro world of mother and female as victim of the male patriarch," he said.

"In many sad family stories, those characterizations are true. But maybe in just as many, it is not."

Forseth said laws in which custody is awarded to one parent mean that the other parent -- in most cases the father -- goes from being a caregiver to merely providing financial support.

"When we evict fathers from children's lives, and then tell them that their only function is to pay the bills, we shouldn't be too shocked when some of them temporarily withhold support -- the only leverage they can use to see the children -- or lose heart and drift away," he said.

Despite the presence of a few women in the audience, Forseth's speech was geared towards the men who were present. He said that he was not worried that the shared parenting movement would suffer if it were seen as one dominated by men.

"Do you think the women's movement is damaged by being mainly put forward by women?" he asked. "I don't think so. I just think that truth and reason should win out. Valid points will survive the marketplace of ideas."