Strategy for Reform

May 1999


Canadians agree that when families break down the needs and best interests of children must be the highest priority. Even after divorce or separation, parents do not cease to be parents, and continue to have responsibilities to their children. The role of the justice system is to ensure that children are given priority during this traumatic period in their lives. Concerns have been raised, however, that the current system is not doing a good enough job and that it must be improved.

The Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access was struck to examine and analyze custody and access issues and to look for better ways to ensure positive outcomes for children whose parents divorce. Members from all political parties, from both the House and the Senate, undertook the very difficult task of studying a complex and emotionally charged issue.

The Committee provided a useful forum for Canadians to speak to an issue that affects them personally. It heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses - both experts in various fields and ordinary citizens - who offered a wide spectrum of perspectives and opinions. The Committee also studied briefs and letters, examined legislation and practices in other jurisdictions, and reviewed the extensive literature on the subject. As Minister of Justice, I commend the dedication of the Committee members and the many people who helped them.

For the Sake of the Children, the Report of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, represents an important step towards addressing the problems children face when their parents divorce. The report provides valuable insight into the family law system and its effect on increasingly complex and globalized families. For example, testimony demonstrated that the custody and access terminology has become burdened with negative connotations. I believe the Committee's recommendation to adopt the new term "shared parenting" has promise. Of course, simply substituting new terms for old is not sufficient. We must ensure that we understand the impact such a change would have on the family law system and that its meaning is clear to both the courts and the public.

The report provides undeniable evidence of the lack of public consensus both on what is wrong with the system and on how to fix it. It recognizes the fact that the law cannot solve all the problems. The Committee emphasizes that finding solutions will require a firm commitment from the federal, provincial and territorial governments and all other parties involved. I agree that all governments, family law professionals and parents and other family members must work towards a common goal and be willing to explore innovative ideas and alternatives that meet the best interests of children.

This document outlines the Government's strategy for reform. It includes fundamental principles for reform, and emphasizes the need for a cooperative, holistic and flexible approach based on the needs of the child. Our response also emphasizes the need for further research before proceeding with reforms that will have a major impact on children's lives.

Although the focus of this document is on the Government of Canada's strategy and on what can be accomplished within the federal mandate and priorities, it is clear that partnerships with the provincial and territorial governments will be essential. The recent federal-provincial-territorial agreement establishing a Framework to Improve the Social Union has already laid much of the groundwork for this cooperation. A major concern of the Social Union ministers is the National Children's Agenda, a collective strategy to improve the well-being of Canadian children. Improvement to the law in matters of custody and access will be an important part of a larger effort to ensure that all parts of our society focus on children's needs.

The extensive public interest in the Committee's proceedings clearly reflected the significance of this issue and its impact on the lives of many Canadian families. I wish to express my sincere thanks to all of the witnesses who appeared before the Committee or who sent in briefs sharing their experiences during a difficult and painful stage of their lives and the lives of their children.

As well, I would like to thank the Committee members once again, and particularly the co-chairs, Senator Landon Pearson and Roger Gallaway, M.P, for taking on such a challenging task and guiding it to a successful conclusion.

Anne McLellan
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

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