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Alberta Report - May 11, 1998
FINALLY, SOMEBODY IS LISTENING
By Les Sillars
Ottawa's child custody committee lends a sympathetic ear to
Heading into a hearing of Ottawa's Special
Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access in Calgary last
week, one divorced father was wearing a big grin and two lapel
buttons with the words, "Children need fathers, not visitors."
He was telling anybody who would listen he had just enjoyed 10
days of unsupervised access with his two children, but that it
had taken eight years of legal wrangling to make it happen. He
was smiling about more than just the long-awaited reunion
however. For years, complaints by divorced men of a pervasive
legal bias against them have been routinely dismissed as
But here was a parliamentary committee which
not only wanted to hear their side of the story, it even seemed
The driving force behind the all-party
committee is Liberal Senator Anne Cools. Last year, she and some
Tory senators held up approval of the Liberal government's Bill
C-41, a crackdown on deadbeat dads which critics blasted as
irredeemably one-sided. Though C-41 provided a schedule to
standardize child support levels and tied support to the income
of the non-custodial parent (almost always the father), it
ignored the issue of mothers who deny fathers court-ordered
access to their children. In exchange for Senate approval of a
modified bill, then-justice minister Allan Rock agreed to
appoint the custody committee.
The committee's mandate is to investigate "a
more child-centered approach to family law practices and
policies which would emphasize joint parental responsibilities."
It is expected to produce recommendations for amendments to the
federal Divorce Act this fall. It has already appeared in
Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and will be in the Atlantic
region in late May.
Picture: Calgary hearing: Women's groups were
on the hotseat.
At the Calgary hearings, Sen. Cools was
warmly received by several divorced fathers, most of whom are
active in fathers' rights groups. She worked her way through the
crowd, hugging a few and chatting with the rest in her soft
Caribbean accent. By standing up for fathers' access rights and
the need to reform Canada's adversarial family court system, she
has become a heroine to these men, a cross between a
public-policy advocate and the mother-in-law ideal.
Picture: MESA's Sleiman: Charges of abuse
Almost every father present had a horror
story to relate about a biased and uncaring legal system. Gus
Sleiman is president of the Men's Educational Support
Association (MESA) in Calgary. When his four-year- old marriage
broke up in 1994, his wife took their nine-month-old son Philip
back to her parents' home in Ottawa. She then applied to a
Calgary court to transfer the custody hearing to Ottawa. Such
cases are supposed to be heard in the jurisdiction where the
couple lived with the child and custodial parents may not move
without consent. But she alleged her husband was physically
abusive, which held up the hearing for six months. When it was
finally held, the judge ruled that by then Philip had spent so
long in Ottawa, it was "in the best interest of the child" to
transfer the case there.
Mr. Sleiman did not see Philip between 1994
and 1997. A judge granted three supervised visits last spring,
but he has been denied unsupervised access because his wife
alleged, without evidence, that he will abduct Philip to his
native Lebanon if given the chance. His legal costs, not
including travel, exceed $ 50,000.
Also attending the hearing was Paul, a
Calgary father of three who married in 1982. He left the
marriage with the kids in 1987 after his wife physically
attacked him. The next year he discovered his oldest daughter,
who was five at the time, had contracted a sexually transmitted
disease. Paul suspects she got it while visiting her mother, who
had a boyfriend, and a history of mental illness. Paul was
awarded custody in a 1990 trial.
Two years later, however, the decision was
overturned on appeal. "children should be with their mother,"
said the judge. "If the sexes were reversed, you can't believe
the same thing would have happened," says Paul, who still sounds
shell-shocked. The court now garnishees $1,700 per month of his
$2,800 net income for child support.
Jay Charland of the Men's Education Network
was telling how his ex-wife has not let him see his daughter for
three years. Though his manner seemed slightly hysterical, his
frustration became understandable when he described how a judge
flatly refused to enforce an access order. "Perhaps you should
get some counseling," she told him.
The custody committee is co-chaired by Sen.
Landon Pearson and MP Roger Gallaway, both Liberals from
Ontario. Besides Sen. Cools, other members include Reform MP
Paul Forseth and Tory Sen. Duncan Jessiman. They were told that
slugging out custody, access and support issues in court is
failing miserably. The fathers complained that false allegations
of abuse are common and that courts do not recognize the
contribution fathers make to parenting.
Picture: CSWAC's Black: Not all family
breakups are tragedies
Many believe child support often becomes
defacto alimony, supporting their ex-wives and, in some cases,
their new partners. Few men seek custody because they are told
that, if the mother contest it, the ensuing legal battle will
cost a minimum of $20,000.
The fathers also pointed out women have no
incentive to negotiate out-of-court settlements because they
know judges will likely give them custody and generous levels of
support. That prompted Sen. Jessiman to acidly observe that "the
entire coercive power of the state is directed to the
enforcement of child support payments, but the coercive power of
the state dissolves into a weeping coward when it comes to the
enforcement of court-awarded access."
Two grandparents' rights associations also
appeared before the committee to argue that when their sons lose
access, so do they. However, it is the kids who are the real
victims of divorce, said Alberta Children's Advocate Michael
Day. "It is not easy for us to admit that divorce has more to do
with our own self-fulfillment than the good of our children,"
added Hermina Dykxhoorn, executive director of the Alberta
Federation of Women United for Families.
Conversely, the two representatives of the
Calgary Status of Women Action Committee (CSWAC) claimed the
real cause of divorce is family violence. "We don't believe all
family breakups are tragedies," stated CSWAC coordinator Julie
Black. "We have seen no widespread problem of women unjustly
denying access," added board member Laurie Anderson. Lots of men
abuse their wives, she said, "[so] we ought only to be surprised
at how rarely abused women deny access." When Sen. Cools pressed
them for statistics however, the CSWAC representatives became
defensive and were unable to say how many of their clients are
divorced or involved in access disputes, or even how many
clients they serve.
Groups such as CSWAC, which purport to speak
for many women, have produced no one at the hearings except
their spokesmen. The members of grassroots men's groups, on the
other hand, have more political legitimacy than any other
committee hearings in recent years," asserts Sen. Cools. One of
the fathers' rights groups, the Equitable Child Maintenance and
Access Society (ECMAS), has 1,700 Alberta members. Dozens of
others have sprung up across the country in the past two years,
which generated an enormous demand to speak at the hearings.
ECMAS Calgary president Mike LaBerge
recommended in his submission that Canadian law adopt mandatory
mediation for divorcing parents, as well as "the presumption of
shared parenting" to reduce the winner-loser atmosphere created
by the custody system. He also urged that access denial and the
filing of false allegations be made criminal offences.
Sen. Cools says there is a strong likelihood
the committee will produce a report that recognizes fathers'
grievances. But will the governing Liberals respond to the call
for a more even-handed approach? "If we have a unanimous
report," says Liberal MP Gallaway, "it's going to be difficult
for the government to ignore it." By Les Sillars
Copyright, Alberta Report