The Gazette (Montreal)

Monday, August 12, 2002

Divorced dads deserve a break

Montreal Gazette

Perception is not reality. Polls on such matters as astrology and the death of Elvis Presley regularly establish this. But often enough, the concepts intersect, as they have on the subjects of divorce in Canada and bias in the courts.

A study commissioned by the Justice Department and undertaken last August indicates that only 10 per cent of Canadians believe the legal structures surrounding divorce and child custody are fair and balanced. By an interesting coincidence, this percentage also represents the number of Canadian divorce cases involving children in which custody is awarded to the father.

Few will be surprised to read that mothers get custody in 60 per cent of cases while fathers are typically left with a bitter cocktail combining the right to visit their children on weekends with the obligation to pay disproportionately for their upkeep. Visitation itself is often subject to the discretion of the custodial parent - the mother - while the requirement to make support payments is strictly enforced.

This inequity has long been noted, by the Canadian Bar Association and parliamentarians as well as organized lobbies in favour of fathers' rights. Many people believe that joint custody - currently the resolution of 30 per cent of cases - is the way of the future. There is opposition even to the legal status of words like "custody" and "access," which make post-divorce parenting seem inherently a bitter and confrontational business. Child-rearing, after all, is supposed to be the ultimate nurturing process.

A groundswell of good intentions led to the creation in 1996 of a joint Senate-House of Commons committee to investigate potential changes to the 1968 Divorce Act. After two years of hearings, this committee endorsed the idea of replacing custody with the more co-operative concept of shared parenting. Then-justice minister Anne McLellan, under pressure from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and other feminist groups, called for more study and extended the deadline. Her successor, Martin Cauchon, has shown no interest in reopening the irksome dossier. He told Canadians in May not to expect any major changes, even though major changes had been promised in the Throne Speech of 2001.

Roger Gallaway, a Liberal backbencher who was co-chairman of the committee, called this announcement a betrayal. It was, at the very least, a disappointment to those who expected the Justice Department to show some fortitude. The public perception that divorce law is biased - and the attendant reality - will not go away, any more than divorce itself will cease to be an element of Canadian social life. In certain divorce cases, where one parent is clearly unfit, the other should be granted full custody. But the welfare of children will be better served by a system in which co-operation is the rule, rather than the exception.

© Copyright 2002 Montreal Gazette