Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate at second reading of Bill C-22. This is a very important piece of legislation on amendments to the Divorce Act and other statutes.
As others have already noted in the debate, this is a very critical issue for many in our society today.
This is a policy that affects a large number of families, children, women and parents in general. It is critical that the House of Commons study these issues and develop a bill that will bring solutions to these problems.
As many Canadians have already indicated in the steps leading up to the bill, this is a very important issue that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and serious way by this chamber. The legislation has been eagerly awaited and some would say it is long overdue.
Today we have the opportunity to discuss the broad principles of Bill C-22. As others have already indicated, we believe the bill is so complex and the issue is so full of emotion and competing views that the bill must be sent to the justice committee as soon as possible. I support the recommendations made by members previously that this bill must be addressed in great detail and that we must be receptive to a great number of witnesses and expert testimony.
It is clear that the goal of these changes to the Divorce Act is to attempt to take into account the concerns and hopes of those who are calling for changes and those who want the status quo to be maintained when it comes to how divorce proceedings are handled.
Clearly the bill is an attempt to bring a balanced approach to custody and access and divorce based on a number of years of consultations and indepth study and research. I do not need to remind members of the rocky path that has preceded this moment with the bill before the House.
It is important for us to remember that the bill is an important phase in a long process that started in 1997 when, in exchange for Senate support for the child support guidelines, the Minister of Justice at the time agreed to create the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access. The hearings at the joint committee were emotional. There were a number of heated presentations throughout the course of the committee hearings across the country. For many the end result was not satisfactory. It left a bad taste in the mouths of many who participated and it reflected some very serious divisions in our society.
Certainly there were very emotional and heated presentations from what has come to be known as the fathers' rights lobby. There were some angry words and hostile reactions in that process to the work of the feminist community, to the work of the status of women organizations which have devoted many hours and years in pursuing a just policy that reflects our goal of gender equality in this very important policy area.
Not surprisingly, given that kind of emotional testimony and heated debate throughout the special committee hearings, the report that was tabled in 1999 entitled “For the Sake of the Children” was met with a great deal of concern and criticism. There is no question about that.
Concerns were raised by individuals and organizations across Canada about the recommendations which included mandatory joint custody and shared decision making, maximum contact, parenting plans and mandatory mediation, coercive sanctions targeted against the non-cooperative parent and criminal sanctions against women who make false allegations. That is a summary of some of the contentious recommendations that were made.
Clearly the issue was not resolved with that process. Most would agree that in the report there was a lack of balance and a lack of evidence of sound research to back up the recommendations that were made. As a result the Minister of Justice promised further consultations on proposed law reform options.
In the spring of 2001 the Department of Justice and the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Family Law Committee released a consultation document entitled “Custody, Access and Child Support in Canada: Putting Children's Interests First”. It was recognized that this was an important step in terms of breaking the impasse. However, that process also generated considerable controversy and concern.
Many of the women's organizations, including the National Association of Women and the Law, felt that the process was not conducive to a serious review of the issues and was not founded on what they would consider to be a fundamental stepping off point, which is a gender based analysis. They decided to boycott those consultations and to show a concern with what they considered to be an undemocratic aspect to the consultations initiated by the government back in the spring of 2001.
The Department of Justice has taken the process a step further. Today we have a bill that seeks to address some of those concerns raised over the past five years but which still raises many unanswered questions.
The New Democratic Party position is that the bill be sent as quickly as possible to committee for indepth consultation with the proviso that there be adequate time to hear from a wide range of witnesses and to receive expert testimony with respect to the provisions in the bill.
At face value Bill C-22 seems worthy of support. By the New Democratic Party's recommendation today to send the bill to committee, we are indicating a measure of support for the provisions. We accept that there is an attempt here to find a balance and to address the outstanding concerns of many organizations in Canada.
The changes being proposed to the Divorce Act seek to remedy the often confrontational situation that exists in divorce. In the bill there is the possibility that children's interests are paramount and that is important. The bill, rather than focusing on which parent will get custody, puts in place a responsibilities framework where the responsibilities of both parents in the case of a divorce will have to be worked out. The bill attempts to strengthen the enforcement of child support guidelines and agreements.
My party also acknowledges that beyond the changes to the Divorce Act, the legislation seeks to expand the unified family court program in order to ensure that there is a specific grant to the judiciary oriented toward family issues and concerns. We understand this will include increased funding and the hiring of at least 62 new family court judges. This is absolutely imperative. There are also provisions in Bill C-22 to increase provincial and territorial family justice services, including mediation, parent education and other court related services.
After a preliminary analysis of the bill, there seems to be an important attempt to find balance and to address outstanding concerns. However I want to make a couple of points and to give further examples of why we believe the bill must be addressed at committee and full hearings held before we give full support to it.
The first point has to do with a very legitimate concern raised by the women's community. Has a gender analysis of this legislation taken place? By all accounts that has never happened. The women's community and status of women organizations in this country have repeatedly called for such an analysis. The government does not seem to be taking those recommendations seriously.
That does not surprise me given what we have been going through in the last few days with respect to the reproductive technologies legislation where the Minister of Health vetoed an amendment from the health committee pertaining to gender parity on the new agency to oversee reproductive technologies. It does not surprise me given that we have just been through a long and arduous process in terms of reforming Canada's immigration and refugee legislation and there was no gender analysis.
The need to have a gender analysis with respect to every legislative proposal, every program and every policy is part of Liberal government policy. It has been stated that this is a fundamental imperative for government. To this day it is hard to discern where that policy comes into play and is actually practised.
Today we call on the government to ensure that a gender based analysis is done and is presented to the justice committee so it can be taken into account during the hearings on Bill C-22. It is a very important issue. We are trying to grapple with the impact on women living in violent situations in the context of this important debate around custody and access. I want to remind members of why this is so important.
The National Association of Women and the Law very clearly stated:
[The association wants]... to ensure that changes to family law be made not only in the best interests of children, but also that they not jeopardize the autonomy and equality interests of women in the family. We believe that government policies must promote women's equality if Canada is to live up to its charter obligations and to its commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action and other international instruments.
That association and many other status of women organizations have written to the Minister of Justice and to many of us in the House to make a similar point. I will quote from a couple of those sources, beginning with NAWL which said:
Making joint custody and shared parenting mandatory, enforcing a rule of “maximum contact” between father and children and imposing a “friendly parent rule” can all be used by abusive or dominating men to bolster their power over ex-wives, forcing them to remain in oppressive relationships.
I will quote from a couple of other submissions made to the Minister of Justice and to all of us. A member of the Kitchener-Waterloo sexual assault support centre said:
I expect that any changes to the federal Divorce Act will acknowledge the prevalence of violence against women and put provisions in place to ensure that child custody and access arrangements protect women and children from exposure to violence and abuse on the part of former partners. These provisions are entirely in keeping with the federal government's national and international commitments to end violence against women.
I would also like to quote from a letter sent to the Minister of Justice by the Association des francophones du nord-ouest de l'Ontario a few weeks ago:
This letter is to ask if you have fulfilled your duty, as a minister, to ensure that a gender-based analysis be done of all aspects of this federal legislation that is likely to have a significant impact on women.
There are many other organizations and expert advisers who I could quote. I want to reference very briefly the Vancouver Custody and Access Support and Advocacy Association, which is a very important organization to take into account. It was the first group in Canada to identify how the cycle of abuse was perpetrated beyond intimate relationships through custody and access mechanisms. That organization has done a very indepth examination of the whole area of custody and access and ought to be taken seriously in the process of careful scrutiny of Bill C-22.
Also, I want to reference the British Columbia ad hoc custody and access coalition which has also made that very important link between divorce law, custody and access arrangements and the way in which it can have a deleterious impact on women already in precarious situations of domestic violence, something that is critical in this day and age.
As we have heard many times before, I want to remind members how serious this issue is. I refer to an expert from my own community in Winnipeg, Dr. Jane Ursel who is with the department of sociology, University of Manitoba and with the Winnipeg Family Violence Court. In 1998 before the special joint committee, she said, “This data has indicated that of course family violence is serious and endemic in our community”. She makes that point in the context of reviewing child and custody and access arrangements and proposed changes or amendments to the divorce law because of the interrelationship between domestic violence and arrangements pertaining to custody and access.
There is no shortage of evidence to help us understand the vulnerability that women face in domestic situations and to come to grips with the significant extent of family violence in our society today.
The information by Jane Ursel at our committee meetings five or six years ago was very important for understanding the links and reinforcing the need to take seriously this very important issue. I want to reference a couple of her statistics.
In a study she did, based on her assignment with the Winnipeg family violence court, she said:
First of all, unfortunately, in the three-year time period that I have the data for you today, there were 5,674 cases of spousal abuse. The court indicates that 92% of the convicted offenders were male and 89% of the victims of those offences were female.
This was said in response to some of the testimony that we heard before that special committee suggesting that when it comes to violence in the home, domestic assaults, really there is no difference in terms of gender and that should not be a factor in these discussions. The fact of the matter is that by and large women are the victims in cases of family violence and men are the perpetrators. We need to be very conscious of that and we need to be prepared to scrutinize this legislation from that point of view.
Our job today is to take the benefit of the advice and knowledge out there in so many different organizations and apply it to the work at hand. We need to get down to a serious indepth analysis of Bill C-22 knowing that our demands and obligations require us to seek balance. We need to do everything we can to ensure that we do not make more serious a grave situation of family violence in our society today.