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The Ottawa Citizen - Sunday 20 May 2001

Divorce survey prejudicial: fathers' groups Federal poll aims to stall changes to custody, access, they charge

by Chris Cobb

Father and grandparent groups across the country are banding together in an effort to spoil a federal government survey they say is part of a deliberate policy to limit changes to divorce law and maintain the status quo on custody and access.

"The current family law system is designed to create a winner and a loser," said Eric Tarkington, a Toronto computer consultant and a co-ordinator of the protest.

"And the winner in custody and access matters is nearly always the woman. We see an entrenched government-funded lobby of feminists who shape these policies. This survey is not meant to help create change."

Mr. Tarkington, who moderates an electronic mailing list for Equal Parents of Canada said members of about 30 "father- friendly" groups will use the survey to protest lack of change to the Divorce Act.

The federal Justice department survey and 64-page information booklets were sent to all parliamentarians, everyone who appeared before a special Senate-Commons joint committee on custody three years ago, and other "stakeholders" across the country. Recipients are asked to return the completed questionnaire by June 15. It is also available at www.canada.justice.gc.ca/en/ps/cca/index.html .

Justice officials say the survey is part of an ongoing consultation process that could lead to changes to sections in the Divorce Act dealing with child support, custody and access.

But Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, who co-chaired the special committee, has called the survey an "affront to Parliament."

The joint committee spent a year from January 1998 holding hearings on custody and access across Canada before producing a report it named For the Sake of the Children. The cornerstone of its many recommendations is the replacing of custody and access with a new concept called "shared parenting" under which both separated or divorced parents would have an automatic legal right to be involved in the upbringing of their children.

In cases where one parent alleges the other is unsuitable to be a parent, the committee recommended that charges would have to be proven in court before being used to determine a long-term parenting arrangement. False accusations, or deliberate denying of legally ordered access to children, should be punished, said the committee.

But critics say the survey questions suggest a prejudice against the changes recommended by the committee in favour of maintaining the status quo.

For example, the survey offers the option of retaining the terms custody and access, language the committee expressly recommended be eliminated.

Mr. Gallaway said For the Sake of the Children is the will of Parliament and should be implemented. Justice Minister Anne McLellan received the report in December 1998 and responded six months later, saying more study was needed.

Mr. Tarkington says he expects protesters will simply mail or e-mail the survey to the Justice department with written comments about its "inadequacies."

Mr. Gallaway supports the fathers' protest. "Some of the language in the survey would challenge lawyers," he said. "It is not about change, it's about deception."

He is also angry that feminists groups were discussing and planning strategy on the Internet several days before the survey was sent to parliamentarians and released to the public.

"It's outrageous that one group had advanced knowledge of it," he said.

Father and grandparent groups do not receive government funding to assist their lobbying efforts, though feminist groups do.

Included in the protest are the Victoria Men's Centre Society, Kids Turn of Greater Vancouver Society, Fathers Are Capable Too (FACT), Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society (ECMAS) of Alberta, Groupe d'entraide aux peres et de soutien a l'enfant Inc. (GEPSE) of Quebec, Men's Educational Support Association (MESA), also of Alberta and the Human Equality Action and Resource Team (HEART) of Ontario and Grandparents Requesting Access and Dignity (GRAND).

"Good people are going through the court system in horrible agony," said Mr. Tarkington, who had custody of his now-grown son. "Why are good people being punished emotionally and financially? It isn't necessarily males who are the main victims but in practical terms, it mostly is. We want to take away the government's power to order anything but equal parenting."

Tarkington said the groups' first reaction was to boycott the survey.

"But you have to respond somehow," he said. "We have a crazy system where there has to be one winner parent and one loser parent That's what we want to change. Remove the power of the government to take perfectly good parents away from their children and children away from their parents."

"The work of the joint committee was brilliant," he said, "but it's only a beginning. Whatever our various groups call themselves, they all agree that they want real, practical equality for all parents. I'm asking people to tell the government to make some real change. If you want to call it spoiling the survey you can."

Copyright 2001 (c) The Ottawa Citizen