CANADA

Post-marital battlegrounds

Lines harden over parental rights

DALE EISLER February 10 1997
CANADA

Post-marital battlegrounds

Lines harden over parental rights

DALE EISLER February 10 1997

Post-marital battlegrounds

CANADA

Lines harden over parental rights

When Randy Liberet joined Weekend Dads late last year, members of the support group for divorced fathers in Regina asked him to help decorate a float for the annual Santa Claus parade. A nice idea, but it was not what he had in mind. “I didn’t want to just accept things the way they are,” says Liberet,

37, a father of three in the midst of a divorce. “I felt we had to become advocates, to make changes,” he recalls. “And the first thing should be to change the name of the organization—

Weekend Dads was what we didn’t want to be.” Now, Weekend Dads is going beyond being an emotional support group to become a political action group calling itself the National Shared Parenting Association. It aims to mobilize men who have limited access to their children—and feel their kids are suffering as a result—into a national lobby organization. Its purpose: to challenge a family law system that the group contends is unfairly biased in favor of women.

For some divorced fathers, correcting that bias has become not only a cause, but a passion.

Plans are in the works for a national conference in March. ‘We hope to bring together about 50 like-minded groups from across Canada representing as many as 3,000 people,” said Liberet. The Regina men and their male allies elsewhere are not alone in their challenge. Most notably, the related issue of financial support for the children of separated parents has provoked bitter debate in Ottawa with combative Liberal Senator Anne Cools, a former social worker, standing up for fathers. Last week, Cools gained national attention when her opposition to new federal child-support legislation as perpetuating “a bias against men”—she accuses its feminist supporters of “father-bashing”—placed the proposed new law in jeopardy. “It degrades fatherhood,” said Cools, whose vote in the closely divided Senate could spell life or death for the measure (it handily cleared the Commons) .

Critics of the custody and child-support systems say the odds are stacked against men. In 86 per cent of Canadian child custody cases in 1995 where one parent won, that parent was the mother. Although such imbalance is not new, what has changed is a growing unwillingness among men to pas-

sively accept their fate as noncustodial parents with limited access to their children. “After 30 years of feminism, the idea that women should raise the children does not work any more,” says Mike LaBerge of Calgary, a member of the Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society, a 1,500-family organization seeking more evenhanded treatment of mothers and fathers. With women becoming full partners in the workforce, the traditional roles of husband and wife in the rearing of children have changed dramatically. “Still,” says LaBerge, “men subconsciously think they can’t take their children away from their mother.”

Many specialists in child custody issues argue, however, that court decisions reflect the reality of the family before a divorce. The family law system is specifically mandated to act in the best interests of the children, notes Ottawa family lawyer Barbara Thomp-

son, a member of the advisory committee on child support for the National Association of Women and the Law in Ottawa. Children can be used as weapons in the battle between divorcing parents, she observes, leading a parent who was not closely involved in the child’s life to demand custody. ‘What happens is arrangements at the end of the marriage generally reflect the status quo,” she says.

The pattern in child support similarly rests on the tradition of the father as primary breadwinner, suggests Cools and other critics. Cools, 53, an adviser in Family Mediation Canada, an association of mediators primarily involved in divorce and separation, argues that if feminism’s goal is the equality of women, “that’s not what it’s proposing” in systems that favor mothers. “Feminists have terrorized people for so long that they’re afraid to speak out,” says the senator.

The bill involved in the current Cools fight in the Senate proposes specific income-based guidelines to determine the level of child support paid by noncustodial parents, usually fathers. It would set support payment levels with no regard to the income of the custodial parent, usually the mother. And Cools calls the legislation a “tax grab” unfair to fathers because it would no longer allow an income tax deduction for the payer of support, while the payments received would be tax free. But proponents insist the bill is essential for one-parent children. “There are far too many poor kids in Canada,” said Louise Shaughnessy, a director at the Women and the Law association. “And this bill will help to change that.”

Freeing support payments from taxation was a prime objective in a long struggle by women’s groups. Following the failure of litigation in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1995, the Liberal government introduced the current legislation almost a year ago. It won endorsement from the Canadian Bar Association as well as women’s groups and, last fall, the Commons. The ultimate outcome in Parliament is unlikely to dissolve the battle lines over child custody and support. As women’s groups push the mother’s case and men grow more militant on the other side, the emotional and monetary disputes that follow broken marriages seem certain to inflict scars—often on the children as well as the parents—as deeply as ever.

DALE EISLER in Calgary