moved that Bill C-218, an act to amend the Divorce Act (marriage counselling required before divorce granted), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, it is my honour to rise in the House of Commons today to speak about the Canadian family in regard to Bill C-218, an act to require mandatory counselling prior to granting a divorce.
There is a growing feeling that the Canadian family is in crisis and that the enormous consequences affect each and every one of us on a daily basis. The conflict between individual rights and the collective interests of society has created a menacing minefield of life in which our children must grow.
For many we have become a no fault society which not only tolerates irresponsibility, but often condones it by resisting preventive measures which may be viewed as encroaching on individual rights.
Where rights exist, are there not also responsibilities? Should there not be consequences if we fail or do wrong? Is it acceptable to just continue to rationalize our problems by blaming it on low self-esteem?
Canadians enjoy one of the most envied standards of living in the world, however, we cannot ignore the fact that success does not come without social pressures which may undermine the very foundations of that success, which include the family.
While these statements may provoke defensive reactions, we must resist simple, dismissive rationalizations to complex issues. We must recognize and set aside our personal biases. We must be open and responsive to the evidence of objective assessment. We must not ignore the fundamental truth that healthy children make strong families and, ultimately, a strong country.
There is only one definition of family which all of us have in common. It is a child with their biological mother and father. It is a unique relationship which has no substitute and in that context family is a fact, not an option.
Our society exists and sustains itself because of family. As such, any threat to the security of the family unit must also be considered as a serious threat to our social well-being. As members of Parliament we encounter a broad range of issues, many of which are relatively straightforward in terms of their implications. Child poverty is an example. Invariably, however, we find that resolving these implications are far more complex when one considers all the relevant factors.
As such, we often find that a comprehensive solution with a multiplicity of preventive and remedial approaches is necessary. We also find that the root causes of problems are not absolute, but rather they present risk factors affecting the occurrence of problems.
For example, a poor family can have a healthy, well adjusted child. Therefore, although poverty may not necessarily cause poor outcomes of children, the probability is higher than for well-off Canadians. As legislators we must therefore assess the probabilities and likelihoods of problems occurring, analyse the complexity of contributing factors and develop initiatives with an appropriate balance between prevention and cure. This strategy is particularly relevant in family issues.
Let's consider some of the problems facing the Canadian family. Child poverty continues to be a major challenge which is certainly complex. The starting point, I believe, should be to admit that the term “child poverty” is a political term intended to evoke sympathetic feelings. The fact is that child poverty is family poverty and therefore solutions must necessarily be delivered through the family.
Lone parent families represent only 14.5% of all families in Canada but account for 46% of all children living in poverty. In most of those instances, the poverty was manufactured or created by the family breakdown. Two can live cheaper than one, but the financial consequences of undoing that union are almost always devastating to all concerned. In contrast, only 11.5% of children in two-parent families live in poverty.
The growing incidence of child abuse, both physical and mental, also continues to be of serious concern. If a child is hungry, functionally illiterate, depressed, aggressive or unloved, is that not the result of parental abuse? The majority of such abuse occurs in dysfunctional or broken families.
Youth crime has angered many Canadians because of the escalating seriousness of the kinds of offences. Tougher penalties are often called for, but we cannot ignore the fact that 70% of young offenders come from broken homes.
Physical, mental and social health outcomes of children have also become an emerging issue. Research on brain development in the formative years has discovered that the foundations for rational thinking, problem solving and general reasoning are all established by age one. It is generally accepted that the quality of parenting during the first three years of infancy is the most critical period in which you influence the long-term outcome of children. Since the largest percentage of family breakdowns occurs in the first five years, this fact represents a serious threat to childhood outcomes.
Teen suicide has increased tenfold in the past decade and the tragic reality is that we all must share the blame. Seventy-five percent of teens who commit suicide come from broken homes. The same can be said about drug, alcohol and substance abuse by our youth.
To drop out of high school is to opt out of a chance for a healthy, secure future. Our current drop-out rate in Canada is approximately 30%. Drop-outs have an unemployment rate in excess of 25% and represent over 50% of youth unemployment. High school drop-outs are Canada's poor in waiting and over 70% of them come from broken families.
Following the family breakdown with children, a whole host of aggravating problems arise, including custody support and visitation disputes. Since over 85% of court rulings award custody to the mother, defaults on support payments are devastating to women and their children.
Another serious problem flowing from the family breakdown is the high incidence of domestic abuse and homicide. When the relationship breaks down, it is not over. The fighting often continues for years. According to justice department statistics, 17% of homicides in Canada are divorced persons and yet divorced persons only represent 5.2% of our population.
Needless to say, when the family breaks down, bad things can and do happen. It reflects a social poverty, an erosion of values which also contributes to the widening gap between rich and poor. The me first social experiment has failed miserably and children are the forgotten victims like so much road kill. Not all children of divorce are doomed but in about every way we have to measure such things, children are the victims of the divorce. They are the ones that are hurt.
Divorce may be common but the consequences thereof are not. The findings of recent studies are very disturbing. Here are some observations. Even when there is general agreement, divorce is one of the most stressful events of life that hurts not only the parents and children but also the grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbours and co-workers. Canada has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, having increased tenfold since the mid-1960s to over 75,000 per year. Forty-five per cent of children will see their parents divorced before those children reach their 18th birthday.
Divorce trials can cost over $100,000 and the court system has literally become a forum for revenge. One in four children do not live at home with their biological parents. Children of divorce are three times more likely to experience both poverty and insecurity. Forty-one per cent of children of lone parent families experience some form of conduct disorder such as anxiety, depression or aggressive behaviour. Children in lone parent families are also twice as likely to repeat a grade or have other problems in school. About 25% of divorces end up in custody disputes. Children of broken families account for 70% of young offenders, 75% of teen suicides and 80% of adolescents in psychiatric care.
Bill C-218 calls for mandatory counselling prior to legal granting of a divorce. For many it provokes the snap reaction coined by Justice Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1967 that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. If the issue solely impacts mutually consenting parties with no consequential impacts on others, then I agree.
However, consider the issue of sexual orientation. The state respects the rights of individuals to make choices. When it became clear that such choices had become the primary cause of a disease without a cure, which would result in a slow and painful death, government had to act. The risk of long term suffering and death was so certain it was like playing Russian roulette with a bullet in virtually every chamber. The long term cost to our health care system had also reached hundreds of millions dollars and it is growing expeditiously. That is why we now have so many governments sponsored programs, to caution those at risk, to conduct research to find a cure, to help those who are dying without hope and to safeguard others from contracting the disease.
Undeniably these problems are rooted in the bedrooms of the nation. Who in this place would deny that the government is intervening. Who would deny that it is the right thing to do.
Based on the foregoing the criteria for action by government should be two reasons. One, there is reason to believe that the impacts affect others beyond the principal parties. Second, that there is a high risk or threat to the lives, the health or the fiscal and social well-being of Canadians. In my view, the issue of family breakdown clearly meets the criteria for government action. It is also a complex problem which requires a broad range of approaches, including both preventative and remedial.
The purpose of Bill C-218 is not to promote reconciliation. I repeat, not to promote reconciliation, although that is always an option available to the couples. The purpose is first to ensure that where children are involved a viable parenting plan is in place. Second, it is to ensure that post-breakup acrimony is mitigated.
Let me elaborate. There is little disagreement that where children are involved the real victims of family breakdown are those children. In many respects it can be considered a form of child abuse in that the child is deprived of a stable, loving family home with both mother and father. The priority therefore should be to mitigate the negative impacts of breakdown. A viable parenting plan is vital. Issues to be resolved include custody arrangements, child support, visitation rights and other financial settlement issues.
In a contested divorce both parents are represented by lawyers. If we accept that children are the true victims of family breakdown, then who is representing the interests of the children? Counselling may provide that vital intervention that will ensure that the interests of the children come first. Some may suggest that counselling at a time of divorce is too late and that approaches such as premarriage programs would be more appropriate.
The fact remains that most marriages face serious problems sooner or later. Premarriage counselling is a helpful start but you have to continue to work on the relationship virtually every day. When we consider that almost 70% of divorced persons remarry within five years, counselling will also play a useful role in understanding what happened and why so that future relationships will benefit from that experience.
When Bill C-218 was given first reading, Michael Harris of the Sun newspaper chain wrote a story which ridiculed the bill, decrying when it's over, it's over. In reality however one set of problems is replaced by another and the fighting can go on for years. The post breakup acrimony not only can lead to domestic violence but the negative impact on children can be very damaging and long lasting. Research has shown that children can be so emotionally damaged by their parents' behaviour that they may have difficulty making commitments in forming families themselves.
In focusing on divorce, Bill C-218 deals with a small part of the issue of family breakdown. According to Statistics Canada there are over one million common law relationships in Canada. Since they account for 60% of domestic violence, break down 50% more than married couples and only last an average of five years, the problem obviously is much larger and more complex than can be addressed by this legislation alone.
For over two years the city of Edmonton has run a parenting after divorce program which provides court ordered mandatory counselling. The results have been so positive that the province of Alberta is considering province wide implementation. As well there are 14 U.S. states with similar programs and similar results. The participants regularly admit that they did not realize how much they were hurting their children. Marriage mentoring, covenant marriages and mediation sessions are also emerging programs motivated by similar concerns.
In conclusion, today I am calling on the government, members of Parliament and all Canadians to take action. Specifically I ask the Prime Minister and the cabinet to act on the recommendations of the National Forum on Health by developing programs and policies which are dedicated to protecting and investing in children to strengthen the Canadian family.
Second, I am calling on all hon. members of Parliament to inform themselves about the issues and to develop and promote their own family related initiatives or legislation to bring national attention to the risks facing the Canadian family.
Finally, I call on all Canadians to invest in the well-being of our children to work harder on strengthening the Canadian family. Since strong families make a strong country, we all have a vital role to play.