Madam Speaker, I am honoured today to speak to Bill C-22.
I was in the House this morning when the Minister of Justice spoke. I was listening very intently, as many Canadians were, to hear the tone of the presentation of the Minister of Justice. I was so overwhelmingly pleased that in every aspect of the changes of this legislation it was child centred. In every comment that the Minister of Justice made, it always returned to the fact that it was in the best interests of the child.
As the Secretary of State for Children and Youth I am particularly touched by that because I know, from my own personal experience, as well as those of many Canadians and worldwide citizens, that divorce is not something one intends; it is something that happens as a matter of circumstance and other things that occur.
We bring children into this world to perhaps have as good a life as we have had, if not better. We bring them into this world to dream big dreams, achieve great things, and perhaps achieve the unachievable. We bring them into this world to attain their highest goals in search of excellence. We do not bring them into this world and put them in a circumstance of victimization from their very early years on to their teen years when they go out on their own. In a sense, unfortunately, circumstances of divorce have prevailed that upon our children, and our youth. It is very unfortunate.
In listening to the Minister of Justice this morning I am happy about the important steps the government is taking for children of divorce in Bill C-22, an act to amend the Divorce Act and other acts.
What greater assets do we have in this country than our children? Yet we often feel powerless or unprepared to help them when they experience the breakdown of their family. It is clear that in introducing this bill and the child centred family law strategy the government is committed to improving outcomes for children of divorce.
Prior to the Divorce Act reforms, federal, provincial and territorial governments held public consultations to learn more about the views of Canadians on parenting after separation and divorce. Some of these consultations were conducted with youth. I am particularly interested in this as I am the secretary of state for youth. In one of these groups a young participant wondered whether we could make a law that would force parents to be responsible.
While laws may not effectively force parents to act in a certain way, they may help them to see things differently, but primarily they provide protection for children and youth.
This is the essence of Bill C-22: helping parents focus on their responsibilities; ensuring that parenting decisions are based only on what is best for children; providing help and guidance to parents and others who must make these difficult decisions; and encouraging parents, when appropriate, to resolve their differences out of court. In an ideal world we would not have these circumstances, however we live in a great world, but not all circumstances are ideal.
Often children are the ones who suffer the greatest consequences because of what happens. They do not make the decisions; they have decisions made for them that shape their lives.
By moving away from the current terms “custody” and “access” to an approach based on responsibility we are shifting the focus from the parents to the child. In this new system parents would decide how they would each carry out their responsibilities, including the time they spend with the children and the decision making responsibility that they each would have with respect to the children.
The issues families would need to deal with would remain the same. It would not eliminate the acrimony and the hard feelings that occur sometimes when there is the situation of divorce, or the history that those people share, or how other people get involved. It becomes a whole family situation and some of it is not good. The main thing is that children are victimized. In this circumstance all that could be there, but the government and the legislators have put something forward to protect the children.
The bill would continue to provide the court with discretion to make decisions on parenting arrangements that are in the best interests of the child. However the bill would provide greater guidance on how decisions could be made. For example, parenting orders can vary greatly in terms of how responsibilities for the child are distributed between the parents. By outlining the various types of parental responsibilities that may be allocated, the new Divorce Act approach would facilitate the work of parents when they sit down to tailor an arrangement to suit a particular child.
Too many times in the past it has been about the win-lose situation; who got custody of the child or access to the child. It was all around and about the child. It was not for the child. It was about the people around the child or children.
Parents are generally best placed to determine what is in the best interests of the child. Parents can work out arrangements themselves or with the help of a mediator, counsellor or lawyer. Where a judge is needed to make a decision, for example, where parents cannot agree or are in high conflict as well as family violence cases, judges would be able to issue a parenting order allocating parental responsibilities, because this is purely in the interests of the child.
The addition of the best interests criteria to the Divorce Act would play an important part in helping all parties focus on working out arrangements that are the best for the child in his or her unique circumstances. The criteria would help people understand the factors that a court must consider when making a decision on the basis of the best interests of the child. There is currently no list of factors and the court is directed only to make a decision that is in the best interests of the child.
In the new approach there are at least 12 best interest criteria. This list is not exhaustive and no one factor is more important than another. The weight to be given to each factor would depend upon the importance to the best interests of that particular child. These factors are not intended to direct particular outcomes, since this would not be consistent with the child centred approach. Rather they indicate important issues that the court must consider in the circumstances of the particular child.
Parents often need to make the best decisions about their child's care after separation and divorce. Family justice services, such as parent education courses, mediation and court-related services, all help parents focus on their children's needs. Children would benefit when parents would use these services.
This bill would require lawyers to discuss with their clients the mediation and family justice services available in the community. We expect that by requiring lawyers to inform clients about these services early on, this would result in timely and more amicable settlements that in turn would reduce the pain of divorce for children.
I have many cases and examples of people who are in pain, adults who are engaged in divorce or who have been divorced for a number of years. These people have issues of separation anxiety, the pain of going through a divorce, and being separated from ex-spouses as well as their children, but the underpinning of this is not about them. It is about what happens to those most vulnerable and most at risk, the children.
The technical aspects are about how to dissolve a relationship. The fallout is about the children and the parents, but we must provide protection for those children. The best laws are not based upon individual circumstances or instances. There must be a universal application that has the broadest breadth of application that does the best for those who are most at risk. Again, in this case, those are children.
What we must keep in mind is that besides dealing with the legal aspects of divorce, families have many emotional issues to deal with.
To quote another youth who said during the consultations, “Divorce is about law and about feelings; you need to make sure both are in the right place”. No law is going to fix the problems associated with the feelings. For the reforms to work, everyone from judges and lawyers to mothers and fathers must recognize that children's need for love, attention and support should be paramount. The most important thing should be the love the children get, the attention they get and the support they get.
That was very well reflected in the minister's speech. By focusing on parental responsibilities rather than parental rights, Bill C-22 along with other components of the child centred family justice strategy, will bring about improvements to the family law system that will have important benefits for children and their families as well as long term benefits for Canadian society.
Another a youngster said, “Kids should come first. We are the future”.
Given all of these considerations, we have to reflect on some of the provisions in the bill. People will want to know such things as what a parenting order is; what parental responsibilities are; what decision making responsibilities are; what is parenting time; what are the implications of having taken out the terms “custody” and “access” from the Divorce Act; and contact orders. Do people know that contact orders have to do with the provision of contact between the child and a person other than a parent, such as a grandparent, in the form of visits or oral or written or other methods of communication? People need to know this.
When the special joint committee recommended the removal of the terms “custody” and “access” from the Divorce Act some people believed there was the presumption of shared parenting. There was not. The special joint committee did not recommend a presumption of shared parenting. Instead, the committee's recommendation focused on the best interests of the child. That should be clear.
Although the committee has not recommended establishing a legal presumption in favour of either parent or any particular parenting arrangement, the committee did see the value of shared decision making and even substantially equal time sharing where appropriate, but always in the best interests of the child.
Today is another good day for children in Canada. It is a good day because in listening to and reflecting on the remarks of the Minister of Justice, I can see that after a long period of acrimony, confusion and a lot of the fallout from very difficult circumstances, children have a chance of surviving the economic fallout, the emotional fallout, the acrimony, all of those things that happen to children in a divorce. They become the victims of what happens. It is not in all cases, but too often that has happened.
I would like the House to know that I think this bill is a good thing for Canada. It is good for children. It is good for all parties concerned and we should support it.