Mr. Speaker, as I rise for my first full speech in our new chamber, I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people, expressing our gratitude for their patience and hospitality. Meegwetch.
There could not be a topic that is more fraught emotionally than child custody disputes in marital breakdowns, and it certainly is not new. As I pondered, having been in the deep weeds of this bill through clause by clause with my many amendments, to step back at report stage and really think about our topic, it struck me how very long humanity has struggled with the difficulties.
As my hon. colleague from St. Albert mentioned earlier, judges have a hard time with these decisions, and it put me in mind of the first book of Kings and the wisdom of Solomon. The quite well known story was 2,500 years ago, of two women coming to King Solomon with the claim that a baby was theirs. It was a child custody dispute 2,500 years ago. In trying to discern who was the real mother—we all know the story—King Solomon said to bring him a sword. He would cut the child in half and he would give half to each one of these women. Of course, the real mother said not to, but to give the child to the other woman. Of course, that is when King Solomon said now he knew who the real mother was, and that was that.
Our courts still struggle, and when they get it wrong, sometimes children die. It is still the case in this day and age, and perhaps increasingly so, as violence against an intimate partner sometimes turns into revenge against that intimate partner.
I wanted to start with these two cases because I raised them when this bill came forward for first reading, and I raised them to our then minister of justice to ask if this bill would help in these cases. I now believe that it would or, more accurately, it might. The two cases I want to raise are the cases of two women from Vancouver Island where I live, both of whom lost their children because a judge would not listen to them in a dispute over custody.
One is a case that has been raised in this House many times. In 2015, Alison Azer's children were taken on a vacation, over her objections. Her former spouse was a very well respected doctor, even in the kind of echelons where he was at least an acquaintance of our former prime minister. He was respected in the community, and the court took his word that, in taking Alison's children on holiday, he would bring them back. Alison Azer begged the judge not to give the passports of her children to her former spouse, who was originally from Iraq. She was terrified the children might be kept there, and that is in fact what happened. The children, Canadian citizens, still live overseas. Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim and Meitan have now been so culturally and egregiously alienated from their own mother that, when she finally got a chance to see them, they were not willing to run to her arms. It is one of those things that just breaks one's heart. The judge did not listen to Alison.
The next case is worse, if there is anything worse. In January 2018, more than a thousand people crammed into Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria for the funeral of Chloe and Aubrey Berry, who were murdered by their father on Christmas. I was one of those mourners. I have never been through anything as difficult. The clergy struggled to find meaning, to give people hope, because those little angels were adored by their classmates and their family—of course they were; they were beautiful little girls—and murdered by their father. Their mother also sought to convince a judge that there should not be unsupervised visits for her children with their father. Tragically, the judge did not see that there was existing evidence of threat or harm that was sufficient to deny the father an unsupervised visit.
That mother's name is Sarah Cotton. When I talked to Sarah afterwards at the reception with the mourners, she was startling in her clarity. She was articulate and asked me to help work to make sure that what happened to her would not happen to other mothers. She said that the family court system had to change, that judges had to be prepared to listen and that they should not be so concerned with the access rights of a father that they should ignore the cries of a mother that there was a reason to be concerned.
The rest of what I am going to say about Bill C-78 is dedicated to Alison and Sarah, extraordinary mothers who have lost their children because they could not convince a judge to listen to them about the threat of allowing those children to go with their fathers, either overseas or for a Christmas visit that ended in the children's murder.
Where I find hope in the bill is in the recognition of family violence and the way in which the definition section of the bill would allow for a lot of consideration by a judge of a definition that falls short of “They have already been hurt. He has made specific threats”.
I should step back and say that in some contexts it is not a mother and a father. It could be a mother who is a threat. We are also dealing with situations that are not cisgendered individuals in all cases who are always in heterosexual relationships. We recognize that gender violence and gender inequity transcends hetero norms.
However, let me just continue with the traditional way in which we talk about family violence, which is that it is generally the case in inter-spousal violence that it tends to be a father making threats and a mother who is in the weaker situation, either economically or in terms of the power imbalance, as has been referred to by other members.
In this definition of family violence, and this is what makes it helpful, there is not an exclusive list. It uses examples but it is not a closed list. It defines family violence as:
any conduct, whether or not the conduct constitutes a criminal offence, by a family member towards another family member, that is violent or threatening or that constitutes a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour or that causes that other family member to fear for their own safety or for that of another person—and in the case of a child, the direct or indirect exposure to such conduct—and includes
Then we have a non-exclusive list of (a) to (i). I found it impressive, really, in terms of recognizing psychological abuse and also recognizing the real warning signs, such as under subsection (h), “threats to kill or harm an animal”, a threat against a family pet. If a judge hears that now, the judge can say that it falls within this definition of family violence and we ought to take action to protect these children. We need to think of all these elements.
It is not going to be perfect because judges will continue to make mistakes, but I hope that the recognition in this first reform in more than 20 years of our family law will direct the minds of judges to these various elements of family violence and the psychological stress. I certainly used to practice a little bit of family law. I found it very difficult because it is so emotional. However, we certainly know that there were some times that because it became so confrontational, there would be false charges against one partner or the other in an effort to gain custody. The larger risk comes when one does not listen to the parent who is really concerned that the child might be at risk if parenting time, as we now describe it, is allocated to a parent who may be capable of kidnapping their own children, alienating one parent and doing huge psychological damage to the children, or in the worst case, as I have mentioned, capable of murder.
That, I think, is an improvement: the injection of a more sophisticated understanding of family violence. The context of it and definition of it is certainly an improvement. Of course, this law is primarily child-centred legislation. It is much closer to what we have had in British Columbia for some years, which is, under British Columbia's Family Law Act, a focus on the best interests of the child.
Therefore, it is interesting that the two cases I have raised took place in B.C., even though they had this kind of framework of focusing on the best interests of the children. It suggests that the changes are going to be cultural and need training. I hope this legislation is going to protect children. Its goal is certainly to always have paramount the best interests of the child, and it is for that reason that I support the legislation.
It does have some other substantial improvements that are more about logistics. One of them I just referenced, all too briefly. When we used language about custody and access we created, perhaps inadvertently, more of a contested, gladiatorial struggle to win custody, to be acknowledged as, essentially, the better parent. In an emotional context, marriage breakdowns are certainly about the most emotional time in a person's life. The children were often treated as the spoils of war, and the word “custody” tended to fuel that. At least that is what the drafters of this legislation must have considered in changing the language.
A lot of family law experts who testified at the committee said they hoped this would take away some of that notion of winners and losers, of “winning” custody, because we now talk about parenting time. Parenting time is described in ways that suggest that it is shared parenting time and requires responsible behaviour during that parenting time. This is progress. I think it will help take out some of the conflict. I certainly hope so. As I said earlier, at least it might.
Another big improvement in the legislation, and long overdue, is that it allows a judge to access income information about one or the other parent from other government sources. We certainly know that it has delayed these cases. It has cost the court time. It has stressed out already stressed-out parents, particularly where one spouse has more income than the other, which is often the case. Where they are resistant to disclose voluntarily, now the judge has an access to get other information from other government sources. This will help for sure, and it is a win-win-win in a couple of different directions.
It has already been discussed at some length the improvements around a legislated test for the question of one parent moving to another location with a child and how that affects the other parent and access to parenting time. The rules here will, by being legislated, create a lot more certainty than in the past, where we were essentially dealing with the 1996 Supreme Court case of Gordon v. Goertz. This effort to legislate the test for mobility is clearly progress.
It is also worth reinforcing that in cases where family violence is not at play, the opportunity to go to mediation is certainly an improvement. Anything that takes the adversarial nature of family breakdown, turns down that temperature and makes it all about what is in the best interests of the child is good.
I was trained as a lawyer. I have mentioned that before. There is no doubt it is an adversarial thing. We are taught to go into courtrooms and win. That is not helpful. If in a family breakdown situation we can avoid lawyers and avoid courts and work through mediation everyone will be better off, except the lawyers, and that is okay. I so hope that the kind of co-operative law we have seen developing across Canada, the access to mediation, which is stressed in this bill, will help families get through this crisis period in their lives with their relationships intact. It certainly is the most helpful thing for the children.
I brought forward a number of amendments. My amendments were not accepted. I wanted to see an amendment that dealt with the issue of maximum access. There was a Liberal amendment that was quite similar. I hope we will see that playing out in a way that addresses some of the concerns raised by legal experts. I also put forward amendments to have more of a focus on the question of the judge turning his or her mind to the specific issues when a child is indigenous.
We have seen far too many indigenous children in this country taken from their families, historically and currently, and we need to pay attention to that and wherever possible ensure that children are in their communities, are in their culture, have access to their languages and have access to other relatives. The indigenous nature of child custody is referenced in the bill, but not as completely as it would have been had my amendments been accepted.
As I have said, though, the bill is a substantial reform of family law in Canada. It is long overdue. I so hope it works. I hope it works to avoid, ever again, the tragedies I have mentioned already. There could be nothing worse for any parents than to lose their children. Losing them in divorce is tough. Losing them forever is unbearable.
I hope and pray the legislation will be followed up with additional funding and more training, perhaps mandatory training for judges to think through these cases, to read and think about Aubrey and to read and think about Chloe, and about Alison's children, so that when dealing with a case in front of them they think about what the worst thing is that could happen if they get it wrong. That is ultimately the burden judges carry. I would not want to be the judges who said that they did not worry about the Azer children going overseas or the Berry girls going to their father at Christmas.
All of us need to make the best interests of the child the guiding light of all family law. Indeed, I could not agree more with my hon. colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot. It would have been better had this legislation included an acknowledgement of our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, there is much more that can still be done. We have worked for years in this country, particularly retired Senator Landon Pearson, who led the charge to have a child advocate at the federal level to look at the broad range of issues as they affect our children.
With that, I thank the House for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-78. I look forward to voting for it at report stage and third reading, and seeing it go to the Senate, which potentially may go back to some of the amendments that failed in the House.