May 6, 2004

"Feds should enshrine shared parenting"

Like many reports from Statistics Canada, the figures released this week on the subject of divorce make up a thicket of percentages through which one must hack with the machetes of skepticism and common sense. Divorces are declining marginally. About 72,000 were finalized in 2002, down significantly from the 1987 high of 96,000.

This sounds like good news for the Canadian social fabric, which, despite what one might glean from widespread media fascination with dysfunction, remains based on family stability. But does the good news represent merely an echo of the steady decline in marriage? If fewer people are marrying, and later in life, it only stands to reason these matches will be more durable.

There are differences between provinces. Why have divorces declined almost 15 per cent in New Brunswick while rising slightly in Ontario, Alberta, B.C.and the Yukon? Is Atlantic Canada, proverbially more conservative socially than other regions, becoming more conservative still?

Some realities remain stable. Quebec continues to hold the splitsville title. More than 47 per cent of marriages end within 30 years. The distinctness of Quebec in matters conjugal is widely recognized, although subject to various explanations. Can we still, decades later, invoke the Quiet Revolution and a reaction to the authority of the church? One theory ascribes our interpersonal instability (along with our high rate of suicide) to the emotional uncertainty that a volatile political climate creates.

One Statscan figure is startling. For the first time, mothers were granted sole custody of fewer than 50 per cent of those dependent children involved in divorce cases. This makes quite a contrast from the courthouse culture of 1988, when mothers got sole custody of 75.8 per cent of dependents.

Alas, the number does not mean fathers are claiming, at last, their rightful status as equal parents. Courts remain biased in favour of mothers. Fathers got sole custody of only 8.5 percent of children in 2002. This pitiful figure represents a decline from 9.1 per cent in 2000 and a high of 15 per cent in 1986.

The difference in the maternal figure is explained by the steady growth in joint custody. More often than not, parents share responsibility, substantially if not to a strictly equal degree. This is a positive development, not only because it is fairer to the parents, but because it is best for the child.

All this is happening in Canadian society and in the courts despite the inertia of the federal government. The Paul Martin Liberals have mothballed Chretien legislation that would have excised the adversarial concepts of "custody" and "access" from the Divorce Act and installed shared parenting as the default model.

The explanation from Justice Minister Irwin Cotler for the death of the legislation has to do with the expected need to remodel the Divorce Act to accommodate same-sex breakups. This is a poor excuse to hold up breakthrough legislation. Gay marriage might be headline gold, but it is a marginal phenomenon. Gay divorce promises to be more marginal still.

The feds should have a look at the Statscan figures. They make good reading.

The Gazette (Montreal) 2004