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This spring, the federal government will table a report to Parliament on proposed changes to the Divorce Act, relating to custody, access and child-support. This will be an important phase in the process started in 1997 when, in exchange for Senate support for the Child Support Guidelines, the Minister of Justice agreed to create the Special Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the Senate on Custody and Access. This Committee was swayed by the emotional — at times, hysterical — presentations from the “fathers’ rights” lobby, and at times, some of its prominent members were explicitly hostile to women’s rights advocates. Not surprisingly, the recommendations of this Committee, released in 1999 in the report entitled “For the Sake of the Children,” clearly supported the fathers’ rights agenda. Recommendations included mandatory joint custody and shared decision-making, maximum contact, parenting plans and mandatory mediation, coercive sanctions targeted against the “non-cooperative” parent, and criminal sanctions against women who make “false allegations.”
The lack of balance and sound research led to widespread criticism of the report, and the minister of justice promised further consultations on proposed law reform options. In Spring 2001, the Department of Justice and the Federal/ Provincial/ Territorial Family Law Committee released a consultation document entitled “Custody, Access and Child Support in Canada: Putting Children’s Interests First.” NAWL and other provincial and national women’s equality-seeking organizations decided to boycott these consultations, to protest the total absence of any gender-based analysis, and to mark our dissatisfaction with the undemocratic aspects of the consultation. In collaboration with the Ontario Women’s Network on Custody and Access, we developed an extensive brief to the FPT Family Law Committee, that we sent to the minister of justice. An executive summary of the brief was also sent to all provincial Ministers of Justice. (A copy of this brief can be obtained at the Web site of the Ontario Women’s Justice Network at: http://www.owjn.org). In November 2001, consultants tabled the report of this consultation (available on the Department of Justice Web site http://www.canada.justice.gc.ca/en/ps/cca/index.html). The Department of Justice is expected to release a report to Parliament on custody, access and child support before May 1, 2002.
Women across Canada and in Québec will be on a state of alert when this report is tabled. In light of the current neo-liberal trends of privatization and cuts to social programs, and the tendency to strengthen fathers’ rights, the stakes behind the reform of the Divorce Act are very high. There is a real risk of gradually reverting back to a patriarchal model of male domination and female subordination in the family, in the name of the “best interests” of the children and the (formal) equality of the fathers. Making joint custody and shared parenting mandatory, enforcing a rule of “maximum contact” between father and children and imposing a “friendly parent rule” can all be used by abusive or dominating men to bolster their power over ex-wives, forcing them to remain in oppressive relationships.
NAWL and other feminist organizations are asking the federal, provincial territorial governments to ensure that changes to family law be made not only in the best interests of children, but also that they not jeopardize the autonomy and equality interests of women in the family. We believe that government policies must promote women’s equality if Canada is to live up to its Charter obligations and to its commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action and other international instruments.
Women will be organizing across the country to carefully analyze the proposals that the Department of Justice will put forward, and to develop a lobby campaign to target federal and provincial cabinet ministers, MP’s and provincial members of the legislature. In Ontario, for example, NAWL is working with the Ontario Women’s Network on Custody and Access. We are developing a campaign for activists to get training on the current law and problems with custody, access and child-support, so that women will be in a good position to analyze the changes that will be proposed by the Department of Justice in the spring. This initiative will involve two sets of provincial meetings in French and in English, as well as specific meetings in Toronto in the immigrant women’s community, and in Northwestern Ontario particularly in the Aboriginal women’s communities. We hope these result in a collective response, including a brief, to the proposed changes. NAWL also wants to collaborate with other provincial networks; we are planning a “strategic workshop” at our 14 th Biennial Conference in Ottawa in March.
More information on this campaign will be available in the weeks to come. Please visit NAWL’s Web site at: http://www.nawl.ca
Andrée Côté is NAWL’s Director of Legislation and Law Reform.