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Speech in Senate Chamber: Senator Cools speaks to the final report of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access entitled 'For the Sake of the Children', and the importance for children of divorced parents to have a meaningful relationship with both their mothers and fathers.

Leave having been given to revert to Reports of Committees:

Resuming debate on the consideration of the final report of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access entitled: "For the Sake of the Children", tabled in the Senate on December 9, 1998.- (Honourable Senator Pearson).

Hon. Anne C. Cools: Honourable senators, as always I feel indebted to honourable senators. I rise to speak to this committee's report, "For the Sake of the Children."

The tears of this nation that have been shed over the children of divorce are a river. The tears of the children of divorce may flow well into their adulthood as many are robbed of their childhood. Canadians have wept, like Jacob's wife, Rachael, for the children of divorce. Honourable senators, their suffering is our suffering.

Honourable senators, these issues have been my work throughout my adult life. I recall my maiden speech here in this chamber made in response to the Throne Speech of the newly elected Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. That day, December 4, 1984, I spoke about divorce and families. I said:

In the section on social justice, the government makes a great commitment to women. I plead and pray that this commitment to women is real and not part and parcel of the rather hysterical, cosmetic, so-called "justice for women" which seems to be running rampant these days, particularly in the newspapers. This woman is one who believes she can have her personhood without robbing other human beings of their personhood. I hope the commitment in the Throne Speech is to a genuine and real womanhood.

About divorce and the government's then intention to bring a bill, I continued:

I intend to work towards ensuring that the new legislation will include, or at least that an attempt will be made to have it include, the new concept of shared parenting, joint custody, so that one spouse is not isolated from parenting at the wish and whim of the other. I hope the new legislation will reduce the deleterious effects on children of these marital disputes.

The speech mentions enforcement of maintenance orders, but it does not mention an amendment to the Income Tax Act so that perhaps spouses who are paying support for children over 18 years may be permitted to pay the children directly rather than making payments to the spouse, so that those paying spouses can glean some sort of shelter under the Income Tax Act.

I repeat, in 1984, I proposed and supported shared parenting.

Honourable senators, in 1996 and 1997, during Senate debate here on Bill C-41 amending the Divorce Act to implement the federal child support guidelines, I drew a line in the sand. I asserted that the children of divorce deserve the financial, emotional and psychological support of both their parents. I have asserted repeatedly that children of divorce deserve the love and support of both their parents, both mother and father, and that it is the duty of Parliament to vindicate the need of the children of divorce for both their parents.

Honourable senators, my point of view is well supported by the public. This was ably demonstrated by the very recent Southam News-Compas poll conducted in October and reported in The Ottawa Citizen's front page article, November 23, 1998, headlined, "Public backs fathers' rights: "Astonishing" majority wants change to laws on access to children, Compas poll shows."

The pollster, Dr. Conrad Winn is quoted as stating that:

I can't find an adjective to describe the intensity of public dismay over family issues and the unfulfilled rights of fathers and children...

I'm surprised because these issues haven't been on the agenda of Canadian politics for a very long time. The most astonishing thing is the absolute consensus among men and women about how the rights and obligations of fathers and children are being ignored.

That same poll told us that, of the respondents, 70 per cent of Canadians believe that children of divorce receive too little attention and 62 per cent said that fathers receive too little attention. Eighty per cent of those surveyed felt it was very important for children of divorced parents to maintain an ongoing relationship with the non-custodial parent. When one looked at younger Canadians, those 30 years and under, that number rose to 86 per cent. That poll very clearly told us that there is a growing commitment among younger Canadians to parenting and family life.

These poll results show very clearly that Canadian public opinion is in tune with the finest of this joint committee's recommendations, which are the recommendations for shared parenting. Canadians care, and care passionately, about the children of divorce.

Honourable senators, this committee's recommendations 5 to 9 are dramatic; they recommend a major shift in the divorce law and the divorce culture of Canada. They recommend shared parenting as a legal and statutory concept. Recommendation 5 reads:

This Committee recommends that the terms "custody and access" no longer be used in the Divorce Act and instead that the meaning of both terms be incorporated and received in the new term "shared parenting," which shall be taken to include all the meanings, rights, obligations, and common-law and statutory interpretations embodied previously in the terms "custody and access."

This means a transfer of the legal meaning and power of the terms "custody and access" to the term "shared parenting."

Recommendation 6 reads:

This Committee recommends that the Divorce Act be amended to repeal the definition of "custody" and to add a definition of "shared parenting" that reflects the meaning ascribed to that term by this Committee.

Recommendation 8 reads:

This Committee recommends that the common law "tender years doctrine" be rejected as a guide to decision making about parenting.

Finally, recommendation 9 reads:

This Committee recommends that both parents of a child receive information and records in respect of the child's development and social activities, such as school records, medical records and other relevant information. The obligation to provided such information should extend to schools, doctors, hospitals and others generating such information or records, as well as to both parents, unless ordered otherwise by a court.

Honourable senators, this recommendation says very clearly that no parent of a child is to be denied information by any school principal about a child, and that the principal must not be put in a difficult position. Both parents will have an entitlement in law to that sort of information about their child.

Honourable senators, it is very important that we understand this, because last year when we fought here on Bill C-41, we fought because the federal Divorce Act is one of the few places in federal legislation that ever ascribed any entitlement to children. Most children's issues are dealt with provincially. One of the reasons I objected so strongly last year was that I saw that the repeal of a particular section was the removal of an historical right of children, which was recorded and articulated in the Divorce Act. The only other place in federal legislation that the rights of children were articulated was the Juvenile Delinquents Act. I have said in this chamber before that Sir Wilfrid Laurier had been inching his way to bring the issues around children into federal purview, and that had motivated the Juvenile Delinquents Act in 1908.

Honourable senators, these recommendations propose a new Divorce Act which will vindicate, in statute, the entitlement of children to their two parents so as to bring forward a modern, contemporary and balanced law to meet the year 2000. Two parents by the year 2000 is my new motto. You could call it "two by two."

Honourable senators, this committee for me, personally, has been the "committee from hell." I borrow that metaphor from Toronto author Wendy Dennis's just published book, The Divorce from Hell. She wrote about the divorce inferno that has consumed so many families emotionally and financially. I describe it as the "committee from hell" because of the persistent derision and maligning directed towards me from certain quarters, aggression which has only added to my character and strengthened my resolve to bring some light to this darkness, as some children of divorce, sometimes described by me as the children of Sisyphus, are held hostage to conflict, even hatred, while the courts and Parliament have seen fit to do little or nothing to correct the obvious injustice and the anguish of so many. This silence is indicative of our human paucity, the paucity and imperfection of human nature, and the paucity of the human condition. That, honourable senators, is a grand mystery of life, which is only understood in the long run by having a spiritual set of beliefs.

Honourable senators, I have travelled the width and breadth of this country on these issues. I have spoken to thousands of Canadians in person and to millions in media interviews. They, the public, have spoken to me; their support is enormous and, I would add, very humbling. The public mind of this land and the public heart have spoken. In fact, the public will of this land has overtaken the committee's report. The report of the committee has been overtaken by the developments in the public mind and the public realm. The public of this land wants the Minister of Justice, Anne McLellan, to act speedily, without delay, to bring a new Divorce Act to reflect contemporary Canadian values of fairness, balance and equality for children, parents and families in divorce. Canadians want our government to adopt aggressive policies and values on family and family life. Change is necessary.

Honourable senators, you would have to know my family and how I grew up, but I was raised to believe that one person can make a difference. I hope that I have made a difference. I have certainly tried very hard to do so.

Honourable senators, I would like to close by quoting Psalm 127, verse 3:

Children are a gift from the Lord;
They are a real blessing.

Honourable senators, I sincerely believe this. As persons, as individuals and as parliamentarians, and on behalf of the Sovereign, the Supreme Parent, the parens patriae, we are the stewards of the children of this land.

Honourable senators, the name of this report is "For the Sake of the Children." Had I had the opportunity to choose the name of this report, I would have chosen the title "Children of the Spring."

I thank you, honourable senators, for your attention.

 

The remainder of this day's Senate Debates available here.