Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to speak to Bill C-78, which aims to strengthen our family justice system by amending three federal laws, the Divorce Act, the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act and the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act.
As colleagues in this chamber have noted, the reforms proposed in Bill C-78 would represent the first substantive reforms to our federal family laws in over 20 years. We can all agree that these changes are long overdue.
Separation and divorce affect millions of Canadians. We all know that marriage breakdown can be hard on families, especially children.
Our government is committed to ensuring, to the greatest possible extent, that federal family laws protect families from the negative consequences that too often arise in situations of separation and divorce. As I have followed the debate on Bill C-78, I have been pleased to hear the expressions of support from all sides of the House for the key objectives of this legislation, namely promoting the best interests of the child, addressing family violence, helping to reduce child poverty and making Canada's family justice system more accessible and efficient.
It appears that when this bill comes to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, there will be a very collegial approach to making sure that we improve it in the best possible way and actually work together to improve our family law system.
As the Minister of Justice has emphasized, Bill C-78 is really about putting children first. The proposed changes to the Divorce Act reaffirm that the best interest of the child is the only consideration in relation to parenting arrangements, and the bill proposes several changes to further support this fundamental principle.
The changes include a non-exhaustive list of criteria that judges must consider when determining what is in the child's best interest.
Bill C-78 also introduces a primary consideration to the best interests of the child test, which would require courts to consider elements crucial to a child's life, including physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being above all other considerations. Among other factors, the best interests of the child criteria would require courts to consider a child's views and preferences, giving due weight to the child's age and maturity.
This is consistent with Canada's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is important for children to have the right to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives and to express their own opinions, depending on their age and maturity.
We have all seen in our own lives areas where there have been disputes over child custody. Too often, the voice of the child has been ignored. Now, under our proposed law, as soon as this bill is adopted, the voice of the child predominates.
Bill C-78 would also require judges to consider a child's linguistic, cultural and spiritual heritage, and the child's upbringing. That includes indigenous heritage, which is something currently absent from the Divorce Act but obviously necessary to take into account when making decisions about a child.
For example, should a child come from both the English- and French-speaking communities, it is essential that the child learn both languages and the culture of both communities. The same is true when one of the parents comes from an indigenous community. To strip the child of their heritage would be an unfortunate mistake, and now the law would ensure that it is taken into account.
Given that the best interest of the child is the only consideration in making decisions on parenting arrangements for a child, Bill C-78 would not create parenting presumptions in the Divorce Act. The bill would include a modified maximum parenting time principle, requiring courts to ensure the child has as much time with each spouse as is in the child's best interests.
Time with parents fosters a child's social, emotional and cognitive development, and sufficient time with each parent is necessary to establish and maintain these relationships. However, it is important to note that this provision stipulates that the child should have as much time with each parent as is consistent with the best interests of the child. Thus, courts would ultimately determine what allocation of time would work best for the child.
In addition to the amendments pertaining specifically to the best interests of the child test, Bill C-78 proposes several other reforms that promote the best interests of the child. A key example is the proposed change to parenting language.
The terms “custody” and “access” will be replaced by terminology that can help reduce conflict between parents. Bill C-78 also provides for the creation of parenting orders and contact orders, by means of which the courts will give clear instructions to parents about the care of their children.
In addition, in recognition of the fact that there are often other people who play a critical role in a child's life, the bill would make contact orders available to non-spouses, such as grandparents. In most cases, parents facilitate contact between their children and other special people in their lives during one parent's parenting time. These orders would be available as an option in situations where the parties do not agree to allow this to happen. Of course, contact orders would also be based solely on the best interests of the child. However, as we have all seen, and as we have all heard from our constituents, there are tragic incidents where after a divorce, grandparents are not allowed to visit children. Great-aunts, great-uncles and other people who are close are suddenly stripped away from the contact they have had their entire lives. This bill would now ensure that those people would also have a right to say that they want to have contact with a minor child.
Turning now to the second objective of Bill C-78, which is addressing family violence, the government recognizes that family violence is traumatic for children who are exposed to it as direct victims or as witnesses. Increasingly, research is providing important insights into the lifelong effects of childhood trauma, and it is critically important that family violence be appropriately taken into account when decisions about parenting arrangements are being made.
To provide guidance to parents, courts and family justice professionals, Bill C-78 proposes a statutory definition of family violence based on social science research. It would explicitly include family violence as a factor to be considered in determining the best interests of a child, and it would include an additional set of factors to guide courts in considering the impact of family violence.
Finally, Bill C-78 would require courts to inquire about any other civil protection, child protection or criminal proceedings or orders that involve the parties to avoid conflicts between family and criminal court orders.
The third objective of Bill C-78 is to help reduce poverty. It has been demonstrated that the sooner a fair and accurate amount of child support is established after parents separate and payments are made, the better the outcomes are for the child. While most parents meet their obligations when it comes both to the establishment and payment of child support, many parents do not provide the complete and accurate income information required by the law to establish support. There are more than one billion dollars in unpaid child support payments in Canada, and this bill would provide additional tools to provinces and territories to ensure that those debts are paid.
This has serious consequences for families who use the family justice system. More than one million Canadian children of separated or divorced parents live in single-parent families. Those families are more likely to be living in poverty. The risk of poverty following a separation or divorce can be reduced when the parents and the children receive the financial support they are owed.
Bill C-78 would bring much-needed changes to limit the consequences of income-related disputes on the family justice system, parents, and most importantly, children. Amendments to the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act would permit the release of income information to courts and provincial child support services to help determine fair and accurate support amounts and to help them enforce these support orders.
In addition, the amendments to the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act will allow for faster garnishment of wages where possible, so that families can receive the money garnished more quickly.
As my colleague from Elgin—Middlesex—London said in her speech about when she was working as a constituency officer for a former member of Parliament, one of the themes that is the most frustrating for MPs and their staff is when people come in who are the custodial parents and are asking for support. They have to go through hoops to try to find a way to administratively get to the right amount of custodial payments, because the other parent is not cooperating or is lying about his or her income, etc. Now, at least, we can do this in an administrative way and not have to run to court every single time.
Finally, Bill C-78 includes a number of measures intended to streamline processes to help make family justice more accessible and affordable for Canadians, while encouraging family dispute resolution.
To assist Canadian families in resolving international disputes, Bill C-78 would make the necessary changes to the Divorce Act and the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act in order to implement two international conventions: the Convention of 23 November 2007 on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance and the Convention of 19 October 1996 on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Co-operation in Respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children.
We have all heard of horrible cases of parents taking children abroad and the Canadian custodial parents spending years trying to get the children back. We need to do everything possible to work with international forces to make sure that we allow those parents to get their kids back to Canada.
I also want to take a moment to talk about something very important to me, to my colleague from Ottawa—Vanier and to many other members in the House, namely access to justice—and to divorce courts in particular—in Canada's two official languages.
Whether people are English-speaking Quebeckers or French speakers outside Quebec, we want to make sure that access to divorce and access to our courts is available in both languages.
We heard from representatives of the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française de common law as well as English-speaking legal experts from Quebec. In committee, we are going to consider amendments to the bill in order to ensure that Canadians have access to divorce courts in both of Canada's official languages.
To ensure that French and English have official language status in divorce proceedings, we must ensure that the judge or judicial officer who hears the case understands the language in question properly. Witnesses also need to be able to express themselves in their preferred language, and the final decision must be provided in both official languages when testimony is given in both languages. French-speaking Canadians outside Quebec have the right to access justice in their own language.
The English-speaking community of Quebec has a right to justice in its own language. That is something, among other things, I know we will be considering at committee.
In conclusion, we all know how difficult separation and divorce can be for families. I have heard some of my colleagues talk about their own experiences. In retrospect, there are always things that could have been done better. I know the pain some of my friends have suffered going through divorce.
When the law instructs that we need to focus on putting the best interests of the child first, that helps everyone in the picture.
I appreciate the bill. It addresses family violence, it would help reduce poverty and it would make the family justice system more accessible. I believe that Bill C-78, as put forward by our Minister of Justice and Attorney General, represents significant change that would better support Canadian families.