Madam Speaker, Bill C-22 seeks to make some amendments to the Divorce Act of Canada. I believe we have not had changes to the Divorce Act since 1986.
Members will talk today in the House, in committee and as we go through the various stages of legislation about the best interests of the children and putting their interests first. There will be all forms of description of somehow trying to shift the focus away from couples in dispute and to their children.
Why have parliamentarians and other groups around the country, such as the judicial system, recognized that children are in distress when it comes to divorce situations? That question twigged my interest back in 1997. I penned a monograph, only about 80 pages long, called “Divorce--The Bold Facts”. It struck my interest because I learned that in 1967 there were 11,000 divorces in Canada. Some 30 years later we had gone from 11,000 divorces up to 90,000 divorces, a significant change. Fifty per cent of marriages in 1997 ended up in divorce, which shocked me. What happened in our society that all of a sudden the percentage of marriages ending in divorce would go from 10% to 50%? What are the consequences?
As parliamentarians, we are concerned about issues such as child poverty. We are concerned about the Young Offenders Act and our criminal justice system. Well here are the facts and why I wrote this monograph.
The monograph says that lone parent families represent about 15% of all families in Canada. Lone parents are those who are no longer in a married relationship or have a partner. However they account for 54% of all children living in poverty. Fifteen per cent of the families account for 54% of children living in poverty. Why then, when we talk about child poverty, do we somehow have to talk about giving money here and there? If we really want to address child poverty, clearly we have to address the one issue which is the cause of more than half of it, and that is the breakdown of families.
In addition to that, the Department of Justice reported that 70% of young offenders come from broken families. Do members think that children are affected by the breakdown of the Canadian family? Do members think that maybe there is an opportunity for us to address the criminal justice system as it relates to young offenders?
Children are not born bad. Children are a function of their environment, and the breakdown of the Canadian family is the single largest cause of poverty and youth crime in Canada. That is why we must address the Divorce Act. That is why we must make absolutely sure, in making changes to the Divorce Act this time around, after so many years and after so much study, that we do not have a false start. We cannot afford to let our children down. This is all about children.
Earlier a member spent most of the speech talking about domestic violence. I have a report produced by Statistics Canada in 1999 on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. It is the most recent information available. It reports that there were 690,000 incidents of violence against a female spouse and 549,000 perpetrated by a woman against a man.
The conclusion of the survey was that we were getting very close to where the incidents of domestic violence were equally perpetrated by men and women. This is shameful. Something is wrong out there and we need to be extremely careful not to be relying on anecdotal evidence of the past about the existence and perpetration of domestic violence or abuse because it does affect children.
We know from the research that has been done in Canada that children who witness abuse are as seriously affected by that abuse as if they had been abused themselves directly. That is how serious it is. That is why as we approach this I think it is absolutely critical that we take into account the full range of impacts on children.
It is not simply that Mommy and Daddy are breaking down and are going their separate ways. The children have to witness that. The parents may hate each other and abuse each other but the children are the ones affected. All of a sudden there are two homes to care for. Mommy's and Daddy's incomes did not change but expenses sure went up because now there is a second residence.
Anyone who enters into a family breakdown relationship had better know real quick that their financial viability will go south. The financial burden on couples when they break down often manufactures poverty. Many families, when they are together, statistically and however we measure family poverty, would say that they are not in poverty. However, once they split up, once they have a second residence, and once they have ongoing legal and court costs and all the other things attendant to an acrimonious breakup, those families in a lot of cases end up living in poverty. It is not economic poverty due to economic circumstances. It is economic poverty due to social circumstances. It is a social poverty; a manufactured poverty.
We have to understand that children always are the victims. When we worked through the joint Commons-Senate committee on custody and access we talked about these issues. We heard witnesses over a two year period. There was no disagreement and recommendations were made in the December 1998 report, “For the Sake of the Children”. It reflected the theme and the principles on which we should approach our Divorce Act.
One of the key issues the committee talked about was the whole concept of custody and access. Custody and access would tend to indicate to parties that there is a winner and a loser. The committee disagreed with that based on broad, expert testimony from across the country over a two year period that said that we should get some things straight. It said that each parent had an important contribution to make to the lives of their children and they should have that opportunity, and that children had the right to love both parents equally, even if the parents hated each other. These are important, base foundation principles that must be taken into serious account as we look at the Divorce Act.
Many members will come forward with horror stories from their constituents. We will hear stories about the concept of parental alienation syndrome. This is a situation where a parent pits a child against the other parent and makes the parent look bad. Usually it is the custodial parent who perpetrates this.
Even though there are court orders and access orders stating that a non-custodial parent can have access at certain periods, we will hear stories that access is actually denied by the custodial parent. The recourse to the parent who has been denied access is to go to the courts. All of sudden we need lawyers again and we need the courts. In the meantime, the family has exhausted all of its resources and liquid assets fighting a battle that basically would allow them to see their children.
I will talk about the fathers out there but first I will explain why I say fathers. The evidence is clear that about 80% of custody orders go to women when they go to the courts. However, it is even worse than that. The lawyers for the fathers who want access advise their clients that the climate is such or their circumstances are such that they do not have a hope. They tell them that since it will cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the case only to lose that they might as well not go.
It is not just 80% of custody orders going to the mother. When we take into account all the fathers who just cannot afford to go bankrupt trying to express their love for their children and wish to have access to those children, they are not even in the game and are not included in the statistics. However, when all is said and done, probably closer to 90% of custody is held by women and, therefore, the incidences of parental alienation and the incidences of denial of access are predominantly to the disadvantage of the fathers.
We have fathers' groups set up all across the country that have been crying out for a little bit of equity within the Divorce Act. These fathers want the opportunity to love their children and to play a role in their children's lives.
One of the important aspects of how we deal with parents who decide to split up has to do with a parenting plan. What a lovely concept that parents, before they leave the table, before they go their own ways and before they pick up the pieces of their lives, that they will have a parenting plan that will lay out visitation privileges, education and medical decisions, religious arrangements and anything else to do with the lives of those children. It respects the principle that parents will have the maximum exposure possible.
The question of access or visitation of non-parents, like grandparents, was an issue raised by some members and certainly by witnesses before the committee.
A parenting plan sounds like a good concept. It should be there, not just imposed for those cases where there is a custody dispute or a disputed split up. I believe that a parenting plan should be there for all parties, whether children are involved or whether they have a harmonious relationship or not, and it should be protected by the courts.
I think it is very serious to violate a parenting plan, to deny access, to perpetrate parental alienation, to take flight with a child or to simply not respect the provisions of a parenting plan.
When the committee discussed this, and in some of the testimony that was given, it was said that if parents were not going to play ball, if parents were not going to understand that children needed protection and if parents were not going to respect the provisions of a parenting plan, they needed to understand that they were breaking the law and that it would jeopardize their right to have custody of that child. That is how serious this is.
As we go through the legislative process I hope members will seek to ensure that the changes that we make to the Divorce Act will protect and enshrine the fundamental principles that came out of that very important committee work through the joint Commons-Senate committee on custody and access.
I do not think there is anything more important than children when it comes down to dealing with this issue. I have heard some members express some concern for balance because one size does not fit all. We need to have some dynamism within our legislation to take into account unusual circumstances, such as the case of a mother who has custody of the children. If she has special training but a job is no longer available in her community should she be able to relocate to another community where there is real work? I think there is good argument in that case but what about a case where it is a little bit grey? Obviously there are concerns there.
The bill ought to have some dynamism. It should not be black and white. It should not be rigid.
I have spent a lot of time following the development of the debate on the Divorce Act. I have given a number of speeches to groups, ostensibly fathers' groups, fathers who were fighting to have access to their children, fathers who have lost everything they had trying to get access to their children and could not find justice in Canada.
If we honestly believe that both parents have an important contribution to make to their children and that we should do everything possible to make that happen, those who would break that bond and not respect that principle should understand that it would be against the law to do so and that there would be consequences for denying a parent their legitimate and important right to have access to children.
The bill is at second reading. Rather than getting into too much detail and into each individual clause I want to hear more. I want to hear some of the experts and legal experts comment on the provisions of the bill, the true intent, the effect and to see whether it is happening.
I also hope that the committee will look at the recommendations of the joint Commons-Senate committee. Over 40 recommendations were embraced by members from all parties, including members of the other place. It is important that the committee look at each and every recommendation to understand the genesis of those recommendations and to understand what is appearing now in Bill C-22 that reflects that important work that was done by Parliament.
If any of those recommendations are not there, and I know many are not, parliamentarians on the justice committee and those who will appear should make their case as to why they should or should not be there. I think we have to vet that particular report.
I received a report from Mr. Brian Jenkins who is very active in a fathers' group. Mr. Jenkins is fighting to get a bit of equity in our system. I would like to put into the record a couple of his concerns that I hope the committee will address. He raised the concern about the terms custody and access. He said that the vocabulary changed but that it would not correct the divorce law regime. I hope we will address that.
He also said that the bill did not change the current substantive policy of presumptive sole custody and control that makes fathers mere visitors in children's lives and that it did not address the problems of parental alienation. I think he has a good point. I think the bill should if it does not.
He also said that the bill would repeal subsection 16(10) of the Divorce Act which provides for children to have maximum contact time with each parent, both custodial and non-custodial. I do not have a problem with that. Why would the bill repeal it? I want the committee to ensure that it investigates and examines the true intent.
The bill also does not address the lack of enforcement of custody and access of court orders which result in the parental alienation of children. Why?
I could go on but I know I will have other opportunities. I think members should be aware that this an important issue. It is a children's issue more than it is a parenting issue. Members should also know of the importance demonstrated around the world in other models where counselling after breakdown should and will help. We would like to find out how come these rules do not also apply to the breakdown of common law couples with children. Are these children not as important as the children of married couples?