Ottawa Citizen
Saturday 18 March 2000

Senator answers child's call for help

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen


Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen / A nine-year-old boy sought the help of Senator Anne Cools after continuously breaking a judge's ruling that he live with his mother.

Two weeks ago a nine-year-old boy walked into Liberal Senator Anne Cools's office with what seemed an unsolvable problem.

For months the problem has been bounced around by courts, lawyers, child protection workers, police, and has frequently crossed this desk as one of the parents provided running reports. There are court orders in place and when the gavel banged them into the family breakup a year ago, that should have been the end of it.

But the boy has consistently refused to accept the judge's ruling that he live with his mother. He breaks that court order of custody with regularity, and goes to his father. He has been picked up and returned frequently by police, but he repeats the process. It has often meant he has been on the dark streets covering considerable distances between the two homes. Both parents have worried, but neither has bent.

Two weeks ago the boy turned up in Senator Cools's Parliament Hill office. It was after supper and she was in a meeting. She responded immediately.

It was likely a set up, with one of the parents using the senator's reputation as a champion for family rights as a pressure tactic. It was probably an act of desperation.

Senator Cools takes a so-what stance. She was reluctant to talk about it when I visited her office Thursday. The reason for the visit was curiosity. Mother, father and child have been regular visitors to the Senate office since the boy's appearance. The issue seems to have cooled. Why had the senator made such a long term and involved commitment to this issue?

"There was a child in my office asking for help. What else could I do?"

Her reluctance is that she's drawing on her background as a social worker. She is still counselling. It's a work in progress. It's happening in her Parliament Hill office, and another session was to be held later that day.

She described the boy as bright and articulate. On first meeting, he talked and she listened. She then contacted the parents and asked them to give her a chance at helping.

"When they were all together I found three people in need of parenting. Mother couldn't stop crying and father was prepared to take notes. I asked mother to leave and compose herself, and I took the notepad away from father. When things calmed, I suggested we let the boy speak and we listen.

"Most important was to get a promise from the boy that he would stop running away. With that risk eliminated, we can work at the rest."

Something unusual was happening. If it's unusual, it's a story. I hadn't been thinking clearly. Had I done a little more research before Thursday's meeting I would have found a profile of Anne Cools published in the Citizen in 1997, pointing to the fact she doesn't follow any known pattern. "Cools' Rules," was the title.

In an age of political correctness, she makes her own decisions about what is correct. It's a style that's up your nose, or in your face, but can always be interpreted only one way: she cares.

She delights in challenging militant feminists. Is she anti-feminist? "Not all. (Broad smile.) I'm an independent woman."

If anything, her track record shows her to believe in an equality of the sexes. Men and women can both be abusive, or both can be great parents. She doesn't believe in the abused woman syndrome. "That's a myth," she says. She worked in a women's shelter for 10 years and now believes the shelter movement is being used to perpetrate the abuse myth. It's an issue she challenges to debate at any time with anybody in any public forum. She doesn't get takers.

She's a woman of convictions, including one that put her in jail for four months for taking part in the 1969 sit-in at Sir George Williams College in Montreal. She was the sparkplug that created the joint Senate-Commons committee that last year made a series of sweeping suggestions about changes to family law. The committee was accused of having a pro male bias, and it's suggestions have been been put on a back burner by Justice Minister Anne McLellan.

Senator Cools keeps handy a copy of a speech she read into Senate records in which she quotes something written by Ms. McLellan in 1991 when she was a law professor at the University of Alberta. " ... an increasing number of commentators now suggest that joint custody may simply perpetuate the influence and domination of men over the lives of women."

One of my favourite questions: What does a social worker know that the rest of us don't? The senator, with a social work background, didn't hesitate. "Nothing one can't learn through a little experience and by going to church."

On the issue of the runaway boy, she's doing something not done anyplace else. She's letting him speak, and making others listen.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. His e-mail address is dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca.

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen