Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak to the Senate amendments to Bill C-41, which amends the Divorce Act.
This bill has received a certain amount of notoriety and attention in the media over the last week or two because of the work of one senator in particular. As my colleague from North Vancouver just said, the Senate became a House of sober, second thought. The impression seems to have been left that this House did not adequately debate and take a good look at the bill. That is simply not true.
Although that seems to be the perception of the public, and perpetuated by the media, in reality this bill was before the House on a number of occasions. I spoke to it twice, at second reading and at report stage, when both opposition parties brought forward a number of amendments which would have improved the bill.
It is a bit ironic that Senator Anne Cools picked up on this when the bill came before the Senate. She also brought forward amendments, which people in the other place are entitled to do. We applaud their efforts to try to better the legislation that comes before them. After all, that is why the Senate is there.
As my hon. colleague from North Vancouver just stated, this is one example that clearly demonstrates that the Senate can actually accomplish a lot, especially in the present situation with such a close balance of power existing in the upper chamber between the Conservatives and the Liberals. This is an example where the Senate can actually accomplish a lot, where it has a lot of power to force change to a piece of legislation.
It is also ironic that while this could be used as an example of the power of the upper chamber, conversely it also indicates the powerlessness of this Chamber. The amendments that eventually came from the Senate that we are debating today are essentially the same amendments that were brought in by the Reform Party of Canada and the Bloc Quebecois when the House dealt with this legislation.
As I indicated, I had the privilege to speak to this bill twice, once on October 3, 1996 and again quite extensively on November 4, 1996 when the bill was in this Chamber for report stage.
We brought forward four amendments. The first would have established an order of priority so that the court would look first at the needs of the child and the non-custodial parent's ability to pay and then at the applicable guidelines for child support. As the bill is written and still exists, the court only looks to the guidelines. We see that as a real flaw in the bill and one that has not been addressed by the Senate amendments.
The second amendment we brought forward is that the guidelines established under the bill should take into consideration the needs of the child and the ability of the parent to pay.
The third amendment would extend the period from 30 to 50 days for a non-custodial spouse to react to the receipt of notice that his or her passport may be suspended or federal licence withdrawn for non-payment of support. This is a real concern in that a situation could develop because of this legislation whereby a non-custodial parent due to an error, and in these days of technology computer errors happen all the time, could arrive at a port or airport planning to leave the country perhaps for employment overseas only to find their passport had been revoked.
In cases where there has been a legitimate error, by the time the individual could go through the appeal process they could perhaps have lost their job. How would this be beneficial to the child that the legislation is supposedly being put in place to help support? This is a very real concern.
We put forward another amendment dealing with the same issue that would extend the period from 10 to 20 days for deeming that a person has received notice that the passport may be suspended or a license revoked for the same purpose. A little more advance notice might prevent a tragic situation when a person could conceivably lose their employment and their ability to support their children because of some error.
We have no problem where an individual has gone through the process and it is obvious the non-custodial parent is intent on not abiding by their responsibilities for the support of the children, that the law treats it as a very serious offence. With the garnishment of wages provision the bill provides that the children are properly cared for and supported.
However, to go to the extent of revoking passports, the bill goes a bit too far as there certainly could be some errors in the future. When they come to light they could prove to be quite tragic in the sense of loss of income for support of the very children the bill was designed to assist.
Another area I want to get into is custody and access which the bill does not deal with. We have said on many occasions when the bill was before the House and when speaking on this issue outside the House that the bill deals with the monetary aspect of child support but completely misses the boat by not dealing with custody and access and co-parenting. It does not promote an enhanced environment for co-parenting.
As mentioned in the debate earlier today, the problem many of us see in the whole area of divorce and what happens to the family is that the divorce process seems to build a sense of adversity between the two parents. The very system promotes adversity rather than trying to arrive at a more amicable conclusion to the divorce. We have said that while the overall purpose of Bill C-41 is quite admirable, it is very lacking in this area.
While I am speaking on this issue, it reminds me that I introduced private members' Bill C-242 in the House of Commons on March 20 last year. The bill would give joint custody in all cases of divorce except where it could be shown to the court that it was in the best interests of the child or children to have sole custody awarded to one parent. Obviously there are cases where there is abuse, neglect or a very real reluctance on the part of one parent to assume the responsibilities, however I would suggest that those cases are a very small exception in the vast majority of cases.
I have talked to a lot of divorced parents in my riding of Prince George-Peace River and across the country about these types of issues. In the vast majority of cases, both parents are trying to operate in the best interests of the children. They want to continue to be loving and caring parents after the divorce just as they were when the marriage was intact.
I noted in an earlier speech that according to a 1995 study by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, non-custodial parents with visitation and joint custody were much more likely to pay support. Seventy-nine per cent of those with access paid support, while only 59 per cent of those without access paid.
We cannot separate the issue of financial support from the issue of custody, visitation and access to the children. The two go hand in hand. We cannot separate the two because statistics clearly show that when there is greater access, there is also a greater willingness on the part of the non-custodial parent, on the part of the other parent, in most cases the father, to comply with support requirements. This is an area where the government could enact legislation that would support families rather than furthering the adversity that we have presently.
A May 19, 1992 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 it results in many problems, including as I said, non-compliance in child support.
That is why when I was looking at this situation I opted to go with moving toward joint custody, which many of the states in the United States have adopted. It is not the total answer and I recognize that. I talked with many groups, such as the umbrella group FACT, Fathers are Capable Too, that was here about a week and a half ago. They had a number of speakers and held a press conference downstairs in this very building. They brought forward a lot of points on this legislation and on this issue which the government would certainly do well to listen to and pay heed to.
As one of my colleagues said earlier, we have to look at this issue as a family issue and a support issue. Why is it that both parents are assumed by society, by the communities and by the justice system to be loving, caring parents when the marriage is intact? We assume that unless it is proven otherwise. Yet it seems that once the marriage breaks down and the parents are separated, the system supports the sense of adversity between the parents. It gives certain rights and powers to one that do not go to the other. 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 only 12 per cent of the time.
In some instances where sole custody is awarded to one parent or the other, the parents themselves can arrive at a reasonable solution, a solution which is in the best interests of the children as far as visitation, holidays and access to those children go. It is in the best interests of those children and I certainly applaud those parents who are able to do that.
However those statistics would indicate to me that there is a problem out there. The problem is that in many cases, the children are used as pawns. They are the innocent victims. That is my great concern.
I do not want to come down on the side of the custodial parent versus the non-custodial parent or vice versa. I do not want to come down on the side of fathers versus mothers. I want to come down on the side of the children.
As a loving, caring parent of three children, I cannot understand, I cannot fathom nor can I see anything worse than the loss of a child. In cases where the marriage breaks down and one parent wants to continue to be that loving, caring parent and wants to build a lifetime relationship with his or her child and is denied that access, it is an indescribable horror for both the parent and the child. Because of that separation, the bond between the parent and child as the young person grows and reaches maturity will never exist. This will affect everything that will happen to the child and will certainly be an ongoing anguish for the parent.
Therefore, even with the amendments from the Senate, it is my judgment that this bill does very little. It fails to meet the very real need of so many families. We are failing the Canadian people on this very important issue.
I only look to the future in the hope that following the next election we will have a Reform government in this country that will properly address this issue and so many other issues. We will bring forward legislation that truly does support the whole family.
When we deal with the Divorce Act, the focus has to be what is best for the children.