Divorced from reality

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A bitterly cold wind swept across the plaza in front of the Prince George, B.C., courthouse on the afternoon of March 28. Lawyers and their clients walked briskly to find shelter and a warm lunch, but a small group of people about a dozen men, two children and one other lady-stood resolutely in front of the modern brick and glass building. There, under leaden skies and in the face of official indifference, they gathered to remember Darrin White, a 34-year-old Prince George railway engineer whose suicide two weeks earlier had become a national symbol for what the protesters say is the Canadian justice system’s unfair treatment of men in divorce-and family-maintenance cases.​

That White became ensnared in a system that discriminates against men seems clear, but some observers maintain that his suicide has a more far-reaching and ominous meaning. His death, they say, is yet another piece of evidence showing that society has devalued the institution of marriage to the point where much of the social cohesion it used to foster has been lost.​

Simply tweaking the system to make the rules more equitable for men, they say, cannot get at the root of the problem. “The liberalization of divorce laws was the biggest disaster to hit Canada, short of common-law marriage,” asserts Darrel Reid of Vancouver, president of Focus on the Family Canada.​

Even more worrisome to some is the sympathetic news coverage given to White’s decision to hang himself rather than try to cope with what was an admittedly onerous situation (see story below). “It used to be that suicide was considered anathema,” says Campaign Life Coalition’s John Hof, of Langley, B.C.​

“Now, we’re apparently seeing it as a valid, albeit tragic, response to horrible circumstances. It’s become just another ‘option.’ It’s like, you could go get a loan from a bank or you could always kill yourself.”​

Canada adopted liberalized no-fault divorce laws in the late 1960s. What followed was a dramatic rise in the divorce rate, to the point where about one out of every two marriages now ends in divorce. An increasing number of people are also choosing not to marry in the first place, and many of those that do are entering into common-law relationships first. In fact, Statistics Canada reported last month that 52% of women aged 20 to 29 are now entering into common-law relationships before marriage.​

But such “trial marriages” carry a high risk: marriages following common-law relationships are almost twice as likely to end in separation or divorce. “The statistical story on common-law marriages is very clear,” says Mr. Reid. “They’re short, they’re dangerous, they don’t promote any kind of social harmony.”​

Divorce often ends up impoverishing both partners and taking a higher than expected emotional toll, but children are apt to suffer most. U.S. researchers have found that children of divorced parents are far more likely to live in poverty, do poorly in school, use drugs, have premarital sex and, ultimately, be unable to form lasting, loving relationships themselves.​

In the wake of the publicity over men’s rights following White’s suicide, Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick took stock of all the social dysfunction that accompanies divorce and said there’s really only one solution, “and that is not to divorce.” Mr. Reid agrees and says society must rid itself of the notion that “designer divorce,” where child-custody arrangement and family-maintenance agreements are spelled out in minute detail, can succeed in the long run.​

Of the many forces aligned against marriage (from libertarianism to the homosexual-rights movement), feminism is the biggest enemy, charges Gus Sleiman, president of the Men’s Educational Support Association of Calgary. “The gender feminist movement came in to destroy marriage,” he states. Mr. Sleiman says further that feminists’ unrelenting attacks on men and fathers, not only within families but also in the media and the courts, are to blame for suicides such as White’s.​

But attaching responsibility for a suicide to an outside influence also serves to remove personal accountability for what, until recently, was considered a shameful and sinful act. Mr. Reid points out that, nowadays, prevailing secular humanist ideology encourages a live-for-the-moment mentality, so it’s no wonder that, if some one concludes there is no way his life can get better, he will commit suicide, “ It’s the ultimate narcissistic act,” the social conservative activist observes.​

“You might as well go out with a bang if there’s nothing to live for.”
A fatal escape clause
April 24, 2000​

Statistics Canada reports that, with a rate of 19.6 per 100,000, men were almost four times more likely than women to commit suicide in 1997. No one can say exactly why people kill themselves, however. Nevertheless, Todd Eckert, president of the Prince George-based Parent and Child Advocacy Coalition, is sure he knows why Darrin White took his own life after he disappeared March 12: he was driven to it by a justice system that discriminate against men at times of marital breakup. “I hate using the gender issue,” he says, ” but it’s a reality”.
Typically, he says, courts award custody of children to women and then force men to pay child and spousal support. Most men are willing to live up to their responsibilities but many are unable to, especially if they have set up house with another women.​

In White’s case, he was already making child-support payment on a14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship when, on March 1, a B.C. Supreme Court master (a junior judge) ordered him to pay $1,000.00 a month in alimony to his estranged wife , Madeleine White, who had custody of their three children. But Darrin was on stress leave and earning only $950 a month in net income at the time.​

Parliament’s Special Joint Committee on Custody and Access has proposed changes to the Divorce Act to make the system fairer, but the Liberal government does not want to act on the issue until after the next election.​

Canadian Alliance MP Paul Forseth has now tabled a 2,000-name petition demanding immediate action. Said the MP, “Canadians have to ask themselves how many other accident, work-time loses and family tragedies could have been prevented if the justice minister [Anne McLellan] had heeded pleas from… countless concerned Canadians to act.”​