Mr. Speaker, before the interruption, I was saying that this bill, which seeks to amend the Divorce Act, will have to be reviewed and reworked. Groups representing Canadian and Quebec women are asking that hearings be held, so that all groups representing both men and women can express their views.
I was saying that Canada does not have a family policy, and it does not have a policy to promote equality for women and the well-being of their children within the family.
During the World March of Women, which took place in the year 2000, women made recommendations to eliminate poverty and violence, and they also made, among others, a recommendation to amend the Divorce Act, to take into account the fact that some women are victims of violence.
I also said that the bill now before us turns responsibility for the family into a private responsibility, and I said that we were opposed to this, because it is society which should assume its responsibilities toward the family.
There are many poor children and the reason for this is that there are poor parents, including poor women.
We do not think that the child-centred family justice strategy reduces—as the legislation attempts to do—the possible negative impact of separation or divorce on children. Take, as an example, the current guidelines on child support, which show that, in the case of joint custody, this support is far from being maintained and is in fact drastically reduced, if not totally eliminated.
The reality is that today many women find themselves looking after their children on their own, even though there may be a joint custody agreement. Moreover, these women are deprived of child support.
This is the problem that exacerbates the already heavy burden of poverty on single mothers and creates some of the worst social and economic hardship in Canada. This is why a rather significant number of mothers become all the more vulnerable to harassment, threats and violence.
I was saying that women are very concerned about the proposals to include a model based on the idea of shared parenting. Indeed, while there is no formal presumption to the effect that judges will rule in favour of joint custody, we think that it is very likely that, in reality, they will tend to do so.
Moreover, in June 2001, a brief submitted by the National Association of Women and the Law to the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Family Law Committee recommended against adopting the policy of creating a legal presumption in favour of joint custody or shared parenting. Imposition of such a formula on reluctant parents would most definitely have disastrous results.
In fact, studies have proven that the real problem faced by many women and children after divorce is the father's refusal to meet his parental responsibilities, or lack of interest in doing so.
Moreover, we are already seeing the results of joint custody arrangements that have been cobbled together in mediation or imposed by a court.
In most cases, the father gradually loses interest in the children and it is of course the mother who ends up having to do all the child care.
Family law reform must also take into consideration the ongoing inequality of women within the family and within society. In 2001-02, Status of Women Canada allocated—as it has for the past three years—in excess of $10 million for an action plan for gender equality.
Unfortunately, there is nothing in this bill to indicate that the legislator has taken any gender specific analysis into consideration, which I shall elaborate on.
The bill insists on formal equality between women and men and does not in any way do anything to ensure material equality for women. Nor does it assure divorcing or separating women of legal aid, representation services or social and economic programs and services.
We know that when a couple separates, divorces or ends a common law relationship, women are not likely to be able to negotiate custody and access rights on an equal footing. The non-availability of legal aid, the fact that legal professionals are still not adequately informed about the complex dynamics of violence in the family, and the lack of accountability in the legal systems, which continue to let off those guilty of assaulting women and children, are some of the factors that continue to impede access to justice for women.
This is why we condemn the third pillar of the strategy, which is to ensure that the way to proceed in justice is primarily based on cooperation, and that recourse to the courts is restricted to the most difficult cases. In our opinion, widely promoted alternate dispute settlement mechanisms such as mediation, counselling, adjudication and parenting courses can become dangerous avenues for women and children who are victims of violence.
To view the courts as mechanisms of last resort is a serious mistake in the case of families in which violence prevails, and for which the courts should be the first and the only option.
There is another issue that deserves particular attention, and that is the confusion and uncertainty that the bill could generate. Take, for example, the issues of access rights and child support. The terminology is changed, but the reality remains the same. The bill introduces some amendments, but it does not include any policy or guidelines that would allow us to envisage what will really happen. Who will make the decisions for the child? Who will make the decisions regarding the child's needs? What decisions will the parents be able to make? Will these decisions be proportionate to the amount of time spent by each parent with the child?
In the case of a trip, how will a parent that is with the child 20% of the time, which means that he does not have joint custody, be able to take his child on a trip? Who will decide that he can take his child on a trip? This is not clear in the bill. Basically, everything has to be redefined, and debated all over again. We agree that joint custody is a very popular concept these days.
I could go on and on. We, women and women's groups, think that one would have to be really irresponsible to introduce such a bill, especially since the approach the federal government is proposing is in part that of the 1998 report by the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access. My colleagues have been referring to it since this morning in this House. The purpose of this special joint committee was to examine and analyze issues relating to child custody and access after separation and divorce. The committee's mandate was to look at what is called a child-centred approach.
I was listening to the opposition members this morning—I should point out they were men—who were against the Bloc Quebecois position. We must not lose sight of something that people must know very well—it is certainly clear to me—and that is that the special joint committee was established and given its mandate because fathers' rights advocates have been pushing for changes to the Divorce Act on the basis of a number of myths and false assumptions.
I would like to present some of these myths and, perhaps, the reality.
The first myth is that including presumptions in favour of joint custody or enhanced access in the Divorce Act will result in good and responsible parenting.
That is what we are told but in reality, good parenting cannot be achieved through legislation alone. What needs to be changed are the broader economic, social and cultural foundations of parenting.
The major impediments to men sharing in parenting responsibilities for children are not legal, but rather are based on assumptions about the roles of fathers and mothers. Changing these constraints on equal participation of men in child rearing is a very difficult task, as many social science studies have shown.
The act cannot achieve this objective. We feel it is inappropriate to try and use it for that purpose, especially at the time of a divorce or separation. We must help the children's primary caregivers so that they can ensure continuous care and security to the best of their ability, while recognizing the difficulties they—90% of those who provide care to children are mothers—may be faced with, including financial difficulties, lack of access to legal advice and their ex-husband' s violent behaviour.
The second myth is that men want to become more involved in raising their children after a separation or divorce.
That may be, but what is the reality? Most men who sue for custody or access are not interested in getting more involved in the day to day care of the children. They want a greater say in all decisions concerning the lives of their children and ex-wife.
A study conducted in Canada on fathers advocacy groups, among others, showed that members of such groups expected the mothers to be primarily responsible for the children, while fathers viewed their role only as one of support.
Not one of these father respondents mentioned wanting to take charge of the day to day care of children. So, the primary caregiver should also be the primary decision maker.
The third myth is that alternative dispute resolution procedures, and mediation in particular, are an alternative to lengthy legal battles over custody and access.
Mediation supposes that the parties are on an equal footing. It cannot work where power is not equal to begin with. If women refuse mediation, they are considered the parent the least open to work out an agreement.
There is a long list of such myths, but I shall conclude.
I will ask the members of the committee currently reviewing this bill, first, to be very careful not to fall for what is very “in”. Caution must be exercised, because what is “in” one day is “out” the next day or a year later.
Human behaviour must also be considered. To update or modernize legislation is not always the best thing that can happen. Let us not forget that great promises may be made about changing behaviours, but there is no guarantee such changes will take place.
Finally, as a last request, I would to see the gender-based analysis, which Status of Women Canada is normally supposed to do in this case. I wonder if they did one, because it costs $10 million.