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June 7, 2001
Women's groups balk at sitting with fathers' rights advocates
Calls to boycott talks on changes to divorce lawChris Cobb
OTTAWA - Outraged feminist groups have threatened to boycott nation-wide government consultations on changes to divorce law because they might have to sit at the same table as fathers' rights advocates.
Anne McLellan, Justice Minister
The meetings, most of which are being held across the country this month, are part of a process expected to lead to changes in the federal Divorce Act and related provincial legislation, particularly child custody and visitation.
The National Association of Women and the Law and the Ontario Women's Network on Custody and Access say they will not be taking part in the meetings because they charge the process could lead to further "subordination" of women.
The women's groups, who announced their boycott at a news conference yesterday, say the process is adversarial because women and fathers' rights groups are being asked to appear together.
"Forcing women's and fathers' rights groups to sit at the same table to supposedly 'work it out' is not productive," said Ghislaine Siroris of the Ontario group. "We need a process that is clear in its commitment to women's equality."
The feminist groups are also angry because official documents for the meetings are gender neutral and do not mention women.
"This is an astounding omission given that women have overwhelmingly been, and continue to be, the primary caregivers of children," said Bonnie Diamond of the National Association of Women and the Law. "Women's organizations believe the outcome of this consultation will jeopardize the rights and safety of women and children."
The consultation process grew out of a joint Senate-Commons committee, which produced a report, For the Sake of the Children, two years ago after a series of hearings across the country.
However Roger Gallaway, the Liberal MP who co-chaired the special committee, has called the meetings an "affront to Parliament" and an effort to delay reform.
"It's an expensive joke," said Mr. Gallaway. "It's all rather discouraging because this isn't a consultation of ordinary Canadians, it's a consultation among interest groups -- it's consultants consulting consultants."
The whole process will cost up to $1.5-million, including $350,000 for the consultants and $780,000 for the provinces.
Virginia McRae, a lawyer for the Department of Justice and co-chairwoman of the consultations, called the boycott unfortunate.
"We had hoped to hear from as many people as possible," she said. "Our focus is on the best interests of the child and our objective is to explore options for kids."
Eileen Morrow of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses said Anne McLellan, the federal Minister of Justice, should uphold the equality rights of women and children.
"The best interests of children," she said, "can only be met by ensuring the well being of their mothers."
The media can be barred from the taxpayer-funded forums if any participants object to a reporter's presence.
Yesterday's meeting in Ottawa, organized by the federal Department of Justice and attended by a dozen representatives of father, grandparent and child welfare groups, was closed to the media after delegates complained that the presence of reporters would inhibit them.
The joint Senate-Commons committee spent a year holding hearings on custody and access. The cornerstone of its many recommendations is to replace the ideas of custody and access with a new concept called "shared parenting" under which both separated or divorced parents would have an automatic right to be involved in the raising of their children.
In cases where one parent alleges the other is unsuitable to be a parent, the committee recommended that charges would have to be proven in court before being used to determine a long-term parenting arrangement. False accusations, or deliberate denying of legally ordered access to children, should be punished, said the committee.
The National Association of Women and the Law claims that joint parenting will not work and will lead to harassment and emotional abuse of "primary residential parents" -- mostly women.
Men's groups complain that the family law system treats fathers as second-class citizens and routinely locks them out of the lives of their children.
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