Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-22, an act to amend the Divorce Act, the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act, the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act and the Judges Act and to amend other acts in consequence. The amendments pertain to child custody arrangements between parents following separation or divorce and are to provide a greater emphasis on parental responsibilities versus parental rights.
I do not think there is anybody who has found themselves in a situation with regard to divorce who does not feel that there is a need for major change in this legislation.
In the year 2000 there were 70,000 divorces in Canada. Although people would say that yes, in a perfect world everybody finds the right partner and ends up married for life, reality says something completely different. I know I join the ranks of one of the divorced persons in the House. I know for a fact that I am not alone. There are many of us.
It is not because the two players in the marriage did not try. It is not because we did not feel that when we made a commitment that it was for life. It is just the reality of the situation of what happened in the period of time we were married that a decision came that, for the sake of the children and each other, it was better to go separate ways.
That kind of decision is made daily by Canadians. It is nice to believe that when this decision is made, the parties coming to that kind of arrangement or agreement always put children first. However I know, not from my own experience but from others whom I have had come into my office, that is not always the case.
Unfortunately in our legal system, our legislation, the acts that pertain to divorce and the courts themselves have not encouraged a more amenable separation of a relationship, of assets and of child custody. Our courts have for whatever reasons increased the adversarial nature of marriage breakdown.
Over the almost 10 years that I have represented my constituents in the House, the saddest tales are those of individuals who find themselves at loggerheads because of the court system, with either an inability to use the courts because they cannot afford the process or an inability to get court orders enforced because nobody really cares and considers it to be civil.
What I perceive as a female is the biases of the courts toward females in any kind of child custody decisions and biases of the courts toward females against the males in a lot of situations that come out of a breakdown of a marriage. Although I have seen how it has happened, I do not think it is right. There has to be a complete overhaul of how our court system deals with the breakdown of marriage and all that occurs from that point forward.
To be quite honest, I do not think a band-aid solution, as I see in this bill, will really help. There is a lot more to it than the bill addresses.
Until we change the whole attitude of our court system when dealing with these kinds of family matters and until there is a change in the attitude of the judiciary which presides over these decisions, I do not think the minor changes or these band-aid solutions before us really will help.
There has to be a major overhaul and the primary focus of any legislation dealing with the breakdown of a marriage, the breakdown of a family unit, has to put the interest of the children before all else. They have to come to grips with the reality that a child needs not one parent, but two.
I go back to my earlier adult years when I lived in a community that had a lot of contact with aboriginal communities. At the time my husband of the day was a social worker. They would go into aboriginal communities and remove these kids because from the outsider's perspective the kids were in peril. From an outsider's perspective, the community was not looking after these children.
I remember one case when a well-meaning social worker went in with a school bus, after the payment for the firefighting was received and the party was going full blow, and picked up all the kids and took them out of the community because the kids needed protection.
What she did not understand was the community, knowing that this was going to happen, had its own resources. While it was not the parents looking after the children, they had the grandmothers, aunts and uncles looking after them. It was a lack of understanding in that the kids were far better off being dealt with in a different way. The kids were removed from what they knew and from what they were secure. They were put in a strange environment, a process that terrified them. One could even probably question whether they ever overcame the harm that was done to them.
Although we seem to be well-meaning and it seems to be logical thing to do at the time, there are many times when decisions are made because the interests of the children are not put first. It is the conscience of the adult, or the conflict of the adult, or who can afford the best lawyer or who can stay the fight longer than the other person. It is not what is best for the children.
I know from my own experience that the relationship between children and their father is equally important in the long run as it is with the mother, and I say that as a mother of four boys. I know that I have a special relationship with my boys that they do not have with their father. I also know that for their complete development, they have to have a relationship with their father. Whether it is a strong and prideful relationship or whether it is a different kind of relationship, that relationship is fundamental to who they are as an adult.
Any time the courts feel that they are in a position to choose one or the other, they are ultimately denying that child the ability to have a relationship with both parents, and that is fundamentally what the bill fails to do. It fails to recognize that for the well-being of children, they must have that relationship. It may be a relationship based on anger or disappointment but they need to have some relationship with both parents.
Without that lack of appreciation by our courts, courts pick sides and winners which is wrong. I appreciate there is sometimes abuse by a parent but our courts for the past number of years have accepted testimony, particularly from mothers, that the abuse is one-sided.
I know that the abuse can also be from mothers. I think there have been some instances where we have infanticide and other convicted felons, if we can call them that, of mothers who have abused their children. However for a long period of time courts automatically assumed that if the mother came in and said that the father was either sexually or physically abusing that child, they would take her word for it.
I have a situation where a father has not only made that complaint in the courts but he has substantiated it with professional psychologists, psychiatrists, others in the medical community and God knows who else who have dealt with the children. He has not only been denied access to the children but they have been left in a perilous situation with the mother simply because the courts have assumed the mother is the best caregiver.
I would not for a moment say that the mother is not important in the raising of a child. There is a special relationship between a mother and a child. Sometimes the kids may not realize it, but it is there. A mother, for the most part but not always, is the one who is most likely to give unconditional love, who is quite easily, because of her compassionate nature, and I am not saying that men are not compassionate, more willing to perhaps look beyond the slight and feel the pain, but not always. It is equally important that a child who might use the mother for the compassion, softness, forgiveness, and the warm and fuzzy stuff would have access to a father who will say to the son or daughter, “You should have known better and you could have done better”, and bring in a different approach to parenting.
Any time children are denied that parenting perspective, they are being denied part of who they are. I would suggest that there comes a time when children are old enough and mature enough to decide what kind of relationship they want with their parents. It may be a more hands-off relationship or it may be a much closer relationship, but unless they have been allowed over a period of time to continue a relationship, they are not going to be in a position to make those kinds of decisions when they are a little more mature.
I want to reinforce the seriousness of the government ignoring a report that put children first and said that one of the most important things for children to have is equal parenting, and that when a divorce happens, unless there is proof beyond proof that there is physical or emotional abuse that is not healthy for the child, there should be dual parenting.
I want to go back to this report. The government in plural, because it was a joint Senate-Commons committee, sat for a couple of years, I think, well beyond a year. It heard testimony after testimony and came up with what I thought was a very sensible report. It certainly was not a small report. I remember trying to find the recommendations. It was a very large report, with 48 recommendations of what the committee saw that needed to happen in order to put children first and to make sure that children did not become victims of a divorce. It is amazing to me that the government can for the most part completely ignore the work of that joint Senate-Commons committee, because it went through the effort that I have not seen the ministry go through, quite frankly, in order to properly understand what needs to happen.
It is one of these things whereby the government puts a lot of money into having committees set up to investigate, hear testimony and make recommendations, and then we completely put it aside. Again as a female person, I would suggest it is largely because of the lobby of the women's groups. The women's groups were quite concerned with the direction that this report was going to take. I remember one occasion when women's groups were not going to even show up at a hearing because a men's representative group was going to be there at the same time and they would not be seen in the same room. That is precisely what we need to get away from.
There is nothing that distresses me more than a guy coming into my office and telling me that he has court access to his children, that he moved from Ontario to British Columbia so that he could be close enough to see his kids, that he gave up a very well paying job in the aerospace industry in order to be close to his kids and see them, and that his ex-wife will not allow him to see his kids. A man gives up his career and moves 2,000 miles away so that he can have a relationship with his children and some female person puts a blight on all of us by refusing him access to his children.
If it were only one case, perhaps I could say that it is only one case, but I hear this over and over again. Not only do I hear it from people coming into my office, I hear it from friends and family members. The anger against the ex-spouse is so strong that it overrides any thought of what is best for the children. Whether it is a man or a female who does it, I do not care; it is wrong. The anger between two individuals about the breakup of a family, a fight over assets, or a fight over who got more out of the marriage should never come down to fighting over the kids.
That we would allow, through legislation before the House or through our court system, adults to make kids victims through a legal proceeding is shameful. We as legislators need to address the reality that one-third of marriages end up in divorce. That will not change. It would be nice if it did. It would be nice if everybody could live happily ever after, but it is not reality. We continue to allow the courts to follow through and allow our children to become victimized. Are we paying a price for it? Yes, we are. Is it because of divorce? No, not really. We allow the divorce proceeding to victimize the kids. We allow a judge to select a winner and to pick a loser. We allow our court system to allow an adversarial situation in which adults fight with each other and the kids get ripped apart as a result. We allow that.
We are allowing it again with this legislation, because we are not dealing with the fact that in a divorce proceeding the children should be granted equal parenting. The children should be granted that, not the father or the mother, but the kids. The kids should be allowed from the very beginning to have free access to both parents, and then it needs to be supported by the community and by the establishment. If any parents take it upon themselves to use their child as a pawn, to use their child to get even, to use their child to get back at or send a message to their ex-spouse, they should be punished for doing that. I do not care if it is a female or a male. Any adult who uses a child to attack another adult does not deserve to be a parent, because a parent who is legitimately concerned about a child and the child's development and wants to ensure that the child does not end up with problems as an adult would not want to use that child as a tool or a vehicle for attacking another individual.
I do not know how much time I have left, but I have made it pretty clear what I think of the government's legislation. It has missed the essence of what needs to be done, which is to put our children first, to protect our children's right to have both a mother and a father involved in their raising. Let the child decide what kind of relationship that will be. We should not let the courts or the angry parent decide that. Let the children decide whether they will have a close warm relationship with both parents or whether one parent will end up with a more distant relationship. Let the children decide that. They are capable of it. It is up to us to make sure that they get the opportunity to grow up knowing both parents.