Calgary Herald

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Loaded language cut from divorce act

Janice Tibbetts
Calgary Herald

The loaded terms "custody" and "access" will be wiped from Canada's divorce vocabulary and replaced with less contentious "parenting orders" in legislation to be announced today.

The proposed change to Canada's Divorce Act will be accompanied by a pledge to put millions of dollars into education programs to counsel separating parents about how to jointly care for their children.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said the government is eliminating the words custody and access in hopes of fostering a system that is "less adversarial" in that it doesn't bring to mind winners and losers.

His proposed legislative changes were dismissed as cosmetic by numerous groups representing non-custodial parents.

The parents' groups wrote an open letter to the justice minister on Monday accusing him of a "program of hate" against men.

"Eliminating custody and access language will do precisely nothing to alleviate the suffering of countless thousands of Canadian children," said the letter, supported by 38 people representing groups across the country.

"Mr. Cauchon, without any real thought or effort, you reject the simplest form of justice: equal parenting. We urge you to reconsider the reckless insensitivity of your policy."

Cauchon is rejecting a proposal of a joint House of Commons and Senate Committee, which recommended almost four years ago the government adopt the concept of "shared parenting," in which equal access to children is presumed.

Canadian judges award sole custody to mothers 60 per cent of the time and joint custody in 30 per cent of cases, according to Divorce Magazine.

Women's groups have lobbied against any wholesale changes to divorce laws.

They have warned the federal government to proceed with caution because they fear violent parents could get access to their children.

Nick Bala, a children's advocate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., praised the Justice Department for changing the loaded language of the Divorce Act, but leaving the rest of it intact.

"The words custody and access are archaic and send an inappropriate message to parents," Bala said.

"There are many people for whom changing the words will not make a whole lot of difference.

"But there is a group of people who will take a message from Parliament, from the court about the need to work together."

With 43 per cent of Canadian marriages ending in divorce, Cauchon said Monday that education and mediation programs, rather than legislative changes, will be the main element of his divorce strategy.

While he is expected to provide millions of dollars for programs, officials would not confirm precisely how much money will be spent.

The money will go to the provinces, which will continue to control programs and services surrounding divorce.

As it now stands, provincial governments receive little help from Ottawa, said Bala.

He believes there needs to be government-subsidized mediation services for combative parents as an alternative to fighting over their children in court. There should also be improved parental training in the early stages of divorce to help them focus on the best interests of the child.

Another Divorce Act change to be announced today is that judges will be given their first list of criteria to follow when settling child custody disputes, including the race of the parents and whether they have ever been violent.

While the final decision remains with the judge, the criteria effectively could make it harder for a parent who has ever displayed violence to have access to his or her children.

Also, a mixed-race child might end up spending more time with a parent who is considered to be in the best position to provide cultural education.

The current act only stipulates that a judge consider the best interests of the child when settling custody disputes, but it does not set out specific criteria.

© Copyright 2002 Calgary Herald