Madam Speaker, before I get into my remarks today on Bill C-41, I would like to take a moment or two to reflect on what happened in this place yesterday. I feel it is very relevant to everything we as individual members of Parliament endeavour to do in the House of Commons.
Yesterday we witnessed not only the breaking of a Liberal red book promise, but I believe the powerlessness of individual MPs was truly revealed. The Prime Minister promised during the last election campaign to give individual MPs, those in opposition as well as his own backbenchers, a greater say in the running of government. Yesterday showed how seriously he took this commitment to the Canadian people.
Yesterday the government brought in time allocation to cut off debate on Bill C-45, a bill which we should never have debated in the first place. This in itself is not surprising, because the Liberals have closed debate about 24 times in this 35th Parliament, despite their howls of protest to the Tories in the last Parliament when the Tories took similar parliamentary action.
In this place we should have been debating the repeal of section 745 of the Criminal Code as outlined in the private member's bill of the member for York South-Weston, Bill C-234.
I believe it is obvious to all here and, more important, out in the real world just how hopeless it is for an individual MP to affect change in this place.
Canadians were and are demanding the repeal of section 745. A member responded by drafting and introducing a private member's bill in response. The majority of the members in the House of Commons supported it, sent it to the justice committee and it disappeared. Democracy. It is enough to make a grown man weep.
I am pleased to speak to Bill C-41 which seeks to make some sense out of this country's system of child support payments. Here we have yet another example of the Liberal government's attempt at patchwork legislation. Canadians have been clamouring for change in how child support payments are determined and enforced. The Liberals pretend to be listening and respond with proposals that do not truly address the basic issues of child custody. While this bill does take some great strides in improving the enforcement of child support payments, or getting tough on so-called deadbeat dads, it entirely skips the issue of custody arrangements and mediation of disputes.
The federal government plans to involve itself in a strong arm approach to enforcement without looking at original access issues. This includes revoking or refusing to renew passports, the use of Revenue Canada's data banks in order to locate defaulting parents, the garnishment of public service pensions to pay child support as well as the wages of those working at sea.
This get tough attitude toward delinquent support payments is appropriate only after all circumstances surrounding the original custody arrangements have been thoroughly analysed and only after attempts at voluntary support have been exhausted.
This means that before taking such invasive measures it must be shown that the non-custodial parent is getting the entitled access to their children and that all other outstanding questions surrounding the custody arrangements have been resolved.
Automated steps to withhold someone's passport, crack open their private income tax information or garnish their wages are irresponsible if used without a thorough investigation of the individual case. This bill does not include proposals to do this.
There are two sides to every issue and while there is no doubt that children across this country are suffering because child support payments are going unpaid, Bill C-41 ignores that many children are also suffering because their right to see and enjoy the love of their non-custodial parent is being denied.
I join with most of the members of this House in getting tough with parents who do not meet support commitments, but let us not encourage the problem with unfair laws. There is a relationship between access to children and non-compliance in support payments. A non-custodial parent who sees his child more often is much more likely to make his payments. This bill does not even touch on this aspect. In many cases the denial of payment is rooted in the non-custodial parent's frustration at being denied access to their children.
According to a 1995 study by the U.S. bureau of statistics non-custodial parents with visitation and or joint custody were much more likely to pay support; 79 per cent of those with access paid support while only 59 per cent of those without access paid.
A May 1992 a study by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family found that almost 75 per cent of non-custodial parents reported problems in visiting their children. This shows that access and visitation rights in Canada are not working and this results in many problems, including non-compliance in child support.
On March 20 of this year I introduced a private member's bill in the House that would also amend the Divorce Act so that joint custody would be automatic. Right now custody automatically goes to one parent unless an application for joint custody is made. Bill C-242 says it should be the reverse. Kids need the love and security of both parents. Joint custody should be automatic except in cases of abuse, neglect or where it is not in the child's best interests.
We would no doubt see the number of delinquent support payments drop significantly once joint custody eliminated many of the access disputes that lead to non-payment in the first place. In many cases non-payment boils down to an issue of guaranteed access to both parents, not dollars and cents.
In 1992 Canadian courts awarded joint custody only 16 per cent of the time. Sole custody is awarded to mothers approximately 72 per cent of the time and to fathers in only 12 per cent of divorces.
This brings about another point to consider when looking at the non-payment of child support. How much potential child support money has been tied up or wasted in fighting over access rights in the courts? The separation and divorce industry drains parents of thousands of dollars. With automatic joint custody legislation that is money that could go to the children instead. It can be difficult for a parent to pay child support while they are doling out $10,000 in legal fees just to see their child.
If the custodial parent moves a child to another province or country, the non-custodial parent is suddenly left with no opportunity to see their child or faces great travel expenses to do so. Making certain that non-custodial parents are accountable for continued financial support even when they have chosen to move to a different provinces is a common goal of the courts and all levels of government. When it comes to ensuring that non-custodial
parents have reasonable access to their children, the governments and courts are strangely silent. This is a double standard.
In my riding of Prince George-Peace River in British Columbia and in other northern areas a divorce can often result in the custodial parent moving with the children to the lower mainland, severely limiting access for the non-custodial parent. It is little wonder that some parents withhold support payments in protest.
Under Bill C-41 the fact that the parent's right to access was arbitrarily taken away would not be considered and the federal government would simply start proceedings to enforce payment.
This would overlook even a supreme court ruling in May of this year concerning a Saskatchewan mother who choose to move with her daughter to Australia against the wishes of her ex-husband. The supreme court's decision took into account the effect of a custodial parent's geographic move on the access rights of the former spouse.
Did the Liberals consider this when they attempted to address the issue of child support payments? I do not believe so. The Liberals have spent a good part of their mandate reviewing child custody and taxation issues, yet they still did not get it right. The finance minister has said that the first obligation of a parent is financial. I could not disagree more. Yes, children need financial security, certainly, but the emotional security of access to both parents cannot be overlooked. Until such time as the federal government is willing to take a look at the entire issue of child custody, the complete picture, it is not qualified to proceed with enforcement.
At the very least in the absence of legislating automatic joint custody the federal government should be encouraging the provinces to be more vigilant in enforcing access problems before they agree to help with the enforcement of child support payments.
The Canadian Council for Co-Parenting, a custody and access support group for divorcing couples, agrees that the deadbeat scenario is not that simple. On its position paper on custody access and child support the CCC claims that many loving parents are deparented by a legal system content with the win-lose approach. It says that many non-custodial parents withdraw disgusted, dismayed and angered by the inequities and imbalance of many court decisions.
The justice minister should be familiar with the Canadian Council for Co-Parenting. The CCC has formally stated its dissatisfaction with Bill C-41. I will quote from a letter which the CCC sent to the justice minister. These are words which is he obviously ignoring: "Our position on Bill C-41 guidelines released in June of 1996 is that they must be reworked. They are seriously flawed in their omission of shared parenting principles of treating both parents fairly. No loving parent, male or female, in a time of great turmoil or anger should be ostracized from the lives of their children for no good reason. C-41 aggravates and enhances the current inhumane imbalances in family law". Of course the CCC is just one of many organizations and individuals concerned with the ramifications of Bill C-41.
Another issue that this bill neglects involves spending accountability by the custodial parent. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that some custodial parents are not using child support payments to properly feed or clothe the child. That parent may be receiving substantial amounts of money from the non-custodial parent but they are not required to account for how the funds are spent. There is no mechanism in place that ensures the child support is used for example to buy a winter coat for a child instead of being spent by the custodial parent on alcohol, cigarettes or whatever.
I want to be perfectly clear that I am not saying this is a prevalent occurrence. However, before the federal government begins vigorous enforcement actions, it must recognize that non-payment of child support may be due to the non-custodial parent's awareness that their child is not the one benefiting from those support payments.
Once again there are many ambiguous questions surrounding child custody cases. A responsible enforcer must first scratch beneath the surface, investigate and then take action based upon complete knowledge of all the pertinent facts.
I would like to further clarify my position on child custody laws. It is not my intent or desire to take sides on this issue. I am neither an advocate for the mothers or the fathers. I am not siding with custodial parents or non-custodial parents. My goal for introducing Bill C-242 and opposing Bill C-41 as it is currently drafted is twofold.
First, the law should be administered as fairly as possible, treating both parents equally. When married and the relationship is intact, it is assumed that both people are good parents. Why assume otherwise just because they are divorced?
Second and most important, I believe in supporting the children. When a relationship ends, they are the innocent victims. I believe very strongly that their emotional and psychological welfare is best supported by maintaining physical contact with both parents and there are studies that bear this out. In other words, I am an advocate for the kids.
If we remove the issue of who will have sole custody from the equation, parents will obviously no longer be able to use custody as a bargaining chip. Fathers would not be able to threaten to seek sole custody unless the mother agrees to unreasonably low maintenance. Mothers likewise would be prevented from holding restricted access over the father's head to obtain a better divorce
settlement. If both parents knew ahead of time with reasonable certainty that custody would be awarded jointly and therefore was not going to be an issue, there would be one less issue to fight about.
As a loving parent, I cannot imagine anything worse than being prevented from seeing my kids. The mere thought of not having access to them on a continual basis provokes angry, protective emotions.
When a marriage ends it is natural for the spouses to blame each other, to have lost respect for each other as a spouse, a lover and a friend. However, if the separating couple can be assisted and encouraged to still respect each other as loving and caring parents, it will provide as positive an environment as possible for the children.
The awarding of joint custody in the vast majority of cases will nurture this respect for each other as parents and will remove the greatest fear every parent faces: the loss of a child. It will also reduce the chances of partners remaining in a potentially abusive relationship because they know that if they walk out without the children, it will be currently held against them at the custody hearing.
Bill C-41 is an inadequate piece of legislation. It is inadequate because it does not responsibly and fairly address child custody laws in their entirety. This is yet another example of quick fix legislation. The government knows there are problems with the child support system and that Canadians are demanding change. However, instead of looking for the root of the problem, the government is proposing superficial and brash changes which it believes will appease voters in the next election.
In its current form Bill C-41 will bring little satisfaction to anyone. It will only result in further emotional suffering for the children who are caught up in these tragic child custody laws.