Calgary Herald

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Stand up for children

Foot-dragging on Divorce Act is politics at its worst

Calgary Herald

Three years ago, when then-justice minister Anne McLellan postponed changes to the Divorce Act for more study, advocates for a fairer system of child custody accused the federal government of stalling. They contended that despite clear evidence Canadians wanted the act revamped to better meet the needs of children, Ottawa was ideologically opposed to disrupting the status quo which favours mothers in matters of custody.

This week, those fears were realized.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon will let today's deadline for amendment pass without action on custody. Although he promises new policy in the fall, he warns there will be no major changes to the 32-year-old act.

It is a victory for the radical feminist lobby and a stunning defeat for children and families.

All sides of the debate agree the Divorce Act is flawed. It sets up an adversarial environment that pits mother against father and emphasizes parental "rights" instead of parental "responsibilities" and children's needs. But feminist groups have refused to concede an inch on the decades-old bias in favour of women.

In 1996, a joint Senate-House of Commons committee began examining the legislation, consulting experts and holding cross-country public hearings. After two years of study, it published For the Sake of the Children, which sensibly recommended the concepts of "custody" and "access" be replaced with a commitment to shared parenting. Parents would have equal responsibilities, and, except in the case of abuse or negligence, children would have equal access to both parents.

The vast majority of contemporary studies on families of divorce conclude that children are far better served by having regular contact with both mother and father.

McLellan, however, decided to redo all the committee's work, including holding more hearings. Over the space of three years, she found support for shared parenting as high as ever. A Pollara poll in October 2000 found "overwhelming agreement" for the concept. In July 2001, the Canadian Bar Association, representing 36,000 lawyers, threw its considerable weight behind the proposed amendments.

But the feminist lobby continued its pressure on Ottawa. Last summer, women's groups boycotted the public hearings because they didn't want to sit at the same table as fathers' rights advocates. Attempts to get private VIP meetings with the minister were scuttled only after the plan became public.

Now, after six years of study, the newly minted Cauchon says he's still not convinced. Clearly, Cauchon has been given his marching orders by a federal government cowed by a vocal lobby. This is politics at its worst.

Evidence shows children are better off with full access to both parents. It is well past time for Ottawa to show some leadership and stand up to a lobby blinded by ideology. Cauchon has fumbled the first pass; he has a chance to redeem himself in the fall by fundamentally reforming the Divorce Act to put children first.

© Copyright 2002 Calgary Herald