Mr. Speaker, as my party's critic for families, children and social development, I am delighted to rise in the House once again to speak to Bill C-78.
I will get straight to the point. Bill C-78 is clearly a step forward, considering that the 40-year-old Divorce Act is no longer a useful tool for helping families navigate the problems they encounter during a divorce.
Let me illustrate that with a quote from Senator Landon Pearson. She was appointed to the Senate in 1994 and retired in 2005. I think this quote shows that we have long known the Divorce Act needs updating. Senator Pearson served as vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Human Rights.
This is what she said way back in the early 2000s:
When their parents separate, children's lives are changed forever. The responsibility of parents and family members as well as the professionals who engage with them, is to make that change as smooth as possible. Children have the right to be looked after, and to be protected from violence and undue emotional stress. They also have the right to maintain relationships that are important to them and to have their own voices heard. Only when these and all the other rights that are guaranteed to them by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are respected, will children be able to accept and adjust well to the new circumstances in which they find themselves.
That is why my NDP colleagues and I will support this bill. However, I want my esteemed colleagues to realize that, although this bill is a step forward, we cannot stop here. I believe this bill can and should be improved.
I think we can all agree that the objectives set out in the text—namely, promoting the best interests of the child, taking family violence into account in making parenting arrangements, fighting child poverty and making Canada's family justice system more accessible—are all steps in the right direction. However, the major flaw with this bill is that it too often lacks the teeth to support its intentions.
Many of the witnesses who appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights as part of its work on Bill C-78 came to the same conclusion. I would like to thank them once again. What I took away from those meetings is that families, associations, justice professionals and academics are all waiting for a comprehensive reform of the Divorce Act.
I want to emphasize how important it is that we not let the opportunity we have today pass us by, since we will likely not reform the Divorce Act again for another few decades. Let us not make changes just for the sake of making changes; we must listen to the recommendations made by witnesses in committee and in the many briefs that have been sent to us. We do not want to realize a few months down the road that the act does not resolve certain problems and only addresses them superficially.
We need to make sure we do things right. I do not want us to end up dealing with problems that we were warned about and that we could have resolved today. I am thinking in particular about situations of family violence and about how the child's views always need to be taken into account in divorce proceedings.
I would therefore like to talk about three issues: fully protecting the best interests of the child, of all children, managing situations of family violence, and combatting poverty.
First, when it comes to promoting the best interests of the child, we must not end up in a situation where the child's interests are determined a priori by the parents or the judge.
That is why it would make sense to include a provision in the bill to give the child the right to be represented by a third party. Countless studies show that questioning a child through such a process is very beneficial. Professionals note that when a person is there to communicate to the parents the concerns and interests of their child, the divorce is settled almost immediately.
Although the bill states in clause 16(3) the need to consider “the child’s views and preferences, by giving due weight to the child’s age and maturity”, it seems that representation for the child would guarantee that the best interest of the child is central to concerns in all circumstances.
Moreover, we should give considerable attention to training on how to duly take into account the point of view of the child in matters before family court. I think that our approach has to be based on the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and best practices being used in Canada and abroad. In fact, to go even further, the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be included in the section on the best interest of the child.
Unfortunately, the departmental officials told the committee that we did not need to explicitly incorporate the Convention on the Rights of the Child because it is a given that Canadian courts are required to comply with the convention. However, several witnesses testified that explicitly including it, not only in the preamble but also in the body of the act, would enable both us and the courts to take into account all the underlying principles of this convention. Sadly, this view did not find favour.
I also want to point out how important it is that children be offered services and resources that give them psychological support.
Lastly, it is equally vital that the best interests of children, all children, be taken into consideration. This means that indigenous children's right to their own culture, religion and language must be recognized in paragraph (f) of subclause 16(3) on the best interests of the child.
The testimony of UNICEF Canada representatives was extremely pertinent and supported this point of view. It is obvious to them that the International Convention on the Rights of the Child supports the principle of considering the culture of indigenous children. Here again, as I just said, we can look to article 30 of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes the rights of an indigenous child to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion or to use his or her own language in community with the other members of his or her group.
I would like to read a quote from the evidence we heard at committee in support of the representation of the child. I will quote Dr. Valerie Irvine, a professor at the University of Victoria, who talked about her studies on the impact of divorce on families. She said:
Canadian families require more integrated services, such as data analytics, the elevation of the role of a child's direct health professional team, and legal representation for the child.
It is clear that, to have these professional services, we must support the provinces, which are responsible for enforcing this law. We know that compared to health services, social services are often overlooked in the provinces.
Barbara Landau told our committee the following:
It isn't lawyers that I say shouldn't interview children; it's judges. I think bringing a kid to the courtroom and having a judge take a few minutes in chambers with the child is a pretty frightening experience.
I think that mental health professionals are the best ones to be trained to work with children. Interviewing a child as part of the process is really helpful. Almost every case settles almost immediately once there is somebody to reflect the child's concerns and interests to the parents.
In the divorce process, each parent is represented by lawyers, and although both parents are concerned about the child's well-being, the child's best interests can unwittingly get lost in the process. If a professional who can speak on behalf of the child and is not intimidated by the judicial process is present for every step of that process, we could truly say that the child is our primary concern.
Second, I want to talk about three considerations regarding family violence. First, it is a great idea to include a definition of family violence in the bill. The definition is purposely broad in order to take into account the complexity and the variety of types of family violence. Nevertheless, many organizations have drawn our attention to the importance of explicitly recognizing in the definition that family violence is a type of violence against women, and rightly so.
The goal is not to minimize cases of violence against men but to recognize the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, family violence is gendered in nature, because it is most often men who commit violence against women. The statistics are clear in that regard.
Next, we need to set out in the bill that alternate dispute resolution mechanisms should not often be used in situations of family violence. Many organizations and academics are concerned that resolving divorce proceedings outside the court system will merely give the violent parent more ways of controlling his victims.
As a result, it is essential that the bill include provisions regarding training for justice professionals on how to recognize, understand and deal with situations of family violence.
I want to take a moment to again pay tribute to two community organizations in my riding that do amazing work day after day for children whose parents are getting divorced and for all women experiencing domestic violence. The expertise of these organizations has been extremely useful for helping me fully understand and document my committee work on this issue.
First, I want to thank Le Petit Pont, an organization that works to create and maintain parent-child bonds in a neutral, harmonious, family-friendly setting during situations of separation and conflict. The child's best interests and safety, both physical and mental, are the top priority for this organization, which operates in both Saint-Hyacinthe and Longueuil.
Second, I want to express my gratitude to La Clé sur la porte. In its 37 years of operation, it has taken in over 4,000 women from all over Quebec. This organization provides shelter for women fleeing domestic violence and their children in Saint-Hyacinthe and also offers support programs in Acton Vale and Belœil. La Clé sur la porte is fully focused on keeping women and children safe.
Every day, these two organizations see the toll that domestic violence takes on women and the indirect repercussions it has on their children, whose welfare is closely tied to that of their parents, as we know. These organizations can attest to the importance of the three amendments I just talked about.
Finally, there is nothing in this bill, nor in the comments made by the Minister of Justice, to convince me that Bill C-78 will do anything to reduce poverty in any meaningful way. The provisions to facilitate the settlement of support orders are good, but what happens when the parent who is supposed to pay cannot afford it?
In addition, access to justice is limited for the most economically vulnerable families. Divorce proceedings are expensive; lawyers are expensive; notaries are expensive; and incomes shrink when couples separate. The use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, as required under this bill, is very likely to be effective when it comes to resolving conflicts, but at the same time, this could create new inequities in terms of access to justice, because those mechanisms will also be expensive. It is therefore crucial that the bill provide funding to support those most vulnerable in our society and guarantee true equality in terms of access to justice. Funding definitely needs to be set aside for transfer to the provinces to bring in these teams of professionals.
Several witnesses told us this. One witness in particular told us that she had the financial means to hire experts, use psychological support services for her children, and access resources for her defence. However, in light of her experience, she found it important to come testify to say that it was clear to her that not all families have access to the same resources and that the children of these less fortunate families had to face this situation alone. We must therefore set aside funding for these social services. As we know, access to legal aid is diminishing. We must ensure that all Canadians have the same access to justice.
If the Liberals truly want to the reduce child poverty, then Bill C-78 is not the answer. The Minister of Justice told us earlier that this bill will not help with that. He then once again pointed to the Canada child benefit, like many of his Liberal colleagues. We know that this benefit cannot solve everything. I will therefore accept the minister's invitation to offer my colleagues some potential solutions to truly end child poverty.
We need to come up with a real national strategy to end child poverty. It is not enough to set targets. We need to provide the means to achieve them, which the current strategy does not do. Then we must build affordable housing for families, seniors and those who need it now. Too many Canadians spend more than 30% of their income on housing. In some regions, that is the case for 50% of the population. In addition, we need a universal pharmacare plan and a universal day care system. We must also establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Those are real social policies that will actually reduce child poverty. I hope we will not see half measures and that the government will consider the recommendations made by witnesses and the opposition.
We must consider all the recommendations. I was very impressed that the witnesses who appeared before our committee were so well prepared. We proposed amendments that, unfortunately, were rejected. I hope that the work in this place will let us go further. Ultimately, we all want the best for our families and, above all, for our children.