Thursday, April 04, 2002

Quebec judge's comments about suitability of welfare mother spark outrage

Canadian Press

MONTREAL (CP) - A Quebec judge who was previously accused of making insensitive comments about natives has angered social groups by questioning the ability of a mother on welfare to look after her seven-year-old son.

During a routine custody hearing earlier this year, Quebec Superior Court Justice Frank Barakett suggested that a mother of three living on social assistance doesn't provide the best role model for her children.

"If I were the judge (who was to settle the child's future) I wouldn't place a child in a house with two people who live on welfare benefits," he said, according to transcripts of the January hearing in Quebec City.

"I'm thinking of the well-being of the child with a suitable father who can impart values other than to stay at home and collect welfare."

Barakett was hearing preliminary proceedings in the case and is not the judge who will decide where the seven-year-old eventually lives.

The case involved Francoise Morin, who was seeking custody of the oldest of her three children. She has been seeing the boy every other weekend since her divorce.

Her lawyer was seeking a routine delay in her case because she had just given birth to a child whose father also relies on government assistance.

Morin, who was not in the courtroom, reacted angrily to the judge's comments.

"Because you are on welfare doesn't mean you can't take care of your children," she told LCN, TVA's all-news network.

Morin questioned how the judge could make such an illogical statement about the parenting abilities of welfare mothers.

Barakett could not be immediately reached for comment.

The case sparked angry reaction from a coalition of poverty and women's activists, who say they filed a formal complaint Wednesday with the Canadian Judicial Council, seeking an inquiry and a reprimand of the judge.

Jeannie Thomas, executive director of the Canadian Judicial Council, said Thursday she had yet to receive the most recent complaint and wouldn't comment specifically about the case anyway.

The council, comprised of Canadian chief justices, doesn't reprimand justices and can only make recommendations to Parliament about whether a judge should be removed from office.

Nicole Jette, co-ordinator of a lobby group which promotes the interests of welfare recipients, wants judges to receive sensitivity training so they don't discriminate against people on welfare.

"We are convinced he is not the only judge who is prejudiced against welfare recipients," said Jette of the Front commun des personnes assistees sociales du Quebec.

"There are so many barriers caused by poverty, we shouldn't add more through prejudice."

She noted that numerous studies have concluded that poor people face discrimination from the judicial and banking systems.

While money is required to raise a child, it shouldn't be the overriding factor for deciding custody, said Jette.

"For us, parental capacity is not related to someone's income."

Barakett's comments were sexist and discriminatory, says Micheline Asselin, co-ordinator of L'R des centres des femmes, a Quebec women's group.

"It's important to denounce this prejudice, especially from a judge who is supposed to be impartial and who's supposed to reflect values of society."

The judge isn't new to controversy. First Nations leaders also filed more than a dozen judicial complaints over comments he made in October 2000.

During a custody hearing involving a Mi'kmaq woman and her non-native husband, Barakett allegedly told the woman to put her children on heroin to make them happy and that powwows and other traditional rituals were little more than child-like myths.

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