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Elizabeth May: Men's Rights Activist?

Thursday, October 22, 2015 12:29
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(Before It's News)

There were five minutes back in August when I considered voting Green. I'd watched the leadership debate, and from where I was standing Elizabeth May didn't seem like a bad choice. It's clear she has a genuine and abiding hatred for pipelines, and I can dig that.

Around this time the Green Party was making headlines, but not for their environmental policies. Critics and journalists were pointing out what seemed to be an anti-feminist slant to the Party's platform. In particular, they noted that the platform's only mention of domestic violence was to claim that “false allegations [of violence] are common.”

This seemed strange – Elizabeth May is a self-proclaimed feminist who pushed the other candidates for a debate on women's issues. Did this slip past her? Was this the result of a few old men in the back row waving their fists, as some commentators suggested?

In fact, Elizabeth May's feminism is mostly smoke and mirrors. When it comes to domestic violence – or to use to a more inclusive term, intimate partner violence (IPV) – Elizabeth May's record as an MP and the positions put forward by the Green Party under her leadership are in lockstep with the ideology of Men's Rights Activists (MRAs). The Green Party advocates for policies that would increase violence against women and in doing so, is setting a dangerous precedent.

First, some statistics: every year, 40,000 people are arrested for domestic violence in Canada, making up 12% of all arrests for violent crime. Only 22% of all incidents of IPV are reported to the police, meaning it's more prevalent than arrest rates suggest. On any given day in Canada, 8,200 women are living in shelters to escape violence, with over 100,000 admitted per year. In Canada, one woman on average is killed by her husband every six days. While IPV can affect anyone of any gender in same and different sex relationships alike, 80 – 90% of perpetrators are men and 80 – 90% of all reported assaults are against women. Women are three to four times more likely to be murdered by their spouses and are far more likely to be hospitalized and to fear for their lives due to IPV. IPV is one of the most common direct reasons women become homeless. It's important to explore IPV as a gendered issue informed by feminism while honouring and supporting all people who experience or have experienced violence.

The Green Party's concern with “false allegations” rather than the epidemic of IPV in Canada, as expressed in the original version of their policy paper, Reforming the Divorce Act, speaks to their values and priorities. Concern over “false allegations” represents an adoption of the abusers' language and perspective and serves to obscure, normalize, and perpetuate violence.

Reforming the Divorce Act went on to criticize Canada's no-fault divorce laws, claiming that “While the original intent of ‘no fault’ divorce introduced in 1985 was well-intentioned to make divorce easier and equally available to both genders, a quarter of a century later, virtually every Canadian is now aware of the many shortcomings and the unintended consequences of unilateral [/no-fault] divorce through the direct experience of family or close friends.”

No-fault divorce allows people to obtain a divorce without their former partner's consent and without having to prove legal wrongdoing like adultery or abuse. Since few non-abusive spouses would force their ex to stay married against their will, no-fault divorce ends up being closely tied to abuse. In a 2006 study, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers examined US states that introduced no-fault divorce. They found that the introduction of no-fault divorce resulted in a 6 – 18% decline in female suicide, a 30% decline in domestic violence, and a 10% decline in women being murdered by their spouses. They suggest that “Unilateral [/no-fault] divorce both potentially increases the likelihood that a domestic violence relationship ends and acts to transfer bargaining power toward the abused, thereby potentially stopping the abuse in extant relationships.”

MRAs tend to oppose no-fault divorce. According to one Canadian MRA group, “No-fault divorce is destroying women, children, and men. More precisely, divorce destroys marriage, and the destruction of marriage harms every party involved. The legality of no-fault divorce just makes it infinitely easier to hurt people.”

The men's rights movement is a global movement claiming that feminism has harmed men, or created conditions where women dominate over men. The first men's rights groups were founded in the wake of first-wave feminism to protest women's entry into the labour force, but the movement really took off in the 1980s as a backlash against second-wave feminism. The movement is large and varied, but its most consistent focuses include domestic violence, divorce law and child custody. The Green Party's stance on “false allegations”, their distaste for no-fault divorce, and their unfortunate claim that “child support can easily become spousal support” all align with the ideology of the men's rights movement. All three of these positions were hastily deleted from the Green Party's platform once they began to attract attention, and it's no wonder – they're bound to offend many Canadians. However, one policy proposal, the Green Party's most long-term and sustained position on divorce law, and a men's rights staple in itself, remained in the revised version of Reforming the Divorce Act – the call for equal parenting laws in the federal Divorce Act.

The Green Party officially adopted this policy position in their Equal Parenting Resolution which resolves “that the Green Party of Canada will make the necessary changes to the Divorce Act so that in the event of a marital breakdown, the Divorce Act will mandate a default of equal parenting – defined as equal time and responsibility unless there is consent from both parents, or there are specific criminal convictions related to the children that preclude equal parenting.” At first glance this looks great. I personally used to support equal parenting laws because of my life experiences; after my parents got divorced, they were awarded joint custody and I spent equal time with each one. When this arrangement works, it tends to work well. Ideally a child should have a close relationship with both parents, with each sharing the labour of raising the child.

The problem with equal parenting laws is that they mandate a “one size fits all” solution to the many different situations that can arise in the context of a divorce. Equal parenting laws pave over the complex and multi-faceted circumstances that need to be taken into account in a custody dispute in favour of a reductive single standard. It's important that the child have a relationship with both parents and with both sides of their family, but it's also important that the law consider the child's wishes, the child's safety and psychological well-being, any history of trauma the child may have, and parents' past histories of violence. Current divorce laws, at least in theory, place the child's interests as the essential consideration that judges must take into account when rendering custody ruling. Equal parenting laws would remove the child's well-being as the central consideration and instead treat the child like property that both parents have a right to.

To better illustrate this point it's useful to look at Bill C-560:An Act to amend the Divorce Act, a bill put forward by the Conservatives in 2014 and voted down primarily by the Liberals and NDP. Take note – Elizabeth May voted for this bill. Like the Green's platform, this bill would have mandated that judges grant equal parenting rights in all circumstances of divorce. It stipulates that in custody dealings, judges are to “apply the presumption that allocating parenting time equally between the spouses is in the best interests of a child of the marriage” and “apply the presumption that equal parental responsibility is in the best interests of a child of the marriage.” They may consider as additional (and by implication secondary) considerations, “the wishes of the child” and “family violence done in the presence of the child.”

The additional considerations are telling. Instead of trying to determine the child's best interests by listening to the child and examining the circumstances of a particular case, the child's best interests are defined a priori as being equal parenting. In both the Green Party's Equal Parenting Resolution and Bill C-560, family violence can only be taken into account (as a secondary consideration) if the parent is criminally convicted of physically abusing the child or of committing violence in the presence of the child.

Under equal parenting laws, if a father is convicted of violence against the mother but the violence took place while the child was asleep in bed, the conviction wouldn't be taken into account in custody dealings. This legal framework rests on a fundamental misapprehension of how abuse works. Relationship violence doesn't occur in isolation – rather, it's one of many tools of power and control that exist in the context of an abusive relationship. Other tools of control include yelling, insults, slurs, belittlement, manipulation, alienation of friends and family, and physical intimidation. If violence is present in the relationship, then the relationship was already abusive before that point, and other tools of power and control will be present. Children living in abusive households are affected by the abuse even if physical violence doesn't occur directly in front of them. A parent’s abuse of their partner also harms their child. Furthermore, parents who are violent to their partners carry a much higher risk of being violent to their children even if they haven't been convicted of child abuse in the past. Awarding equal parenting rights to violent parents is likely to be deeply harmful to the child's psychological and emotional well-being, and exposes the child to a high risk of violence.

These kinds of laws can also expose women to a high risk of post-separation violence: the most common type of relationship violence. A large proportion of post-separation violence occurs during child visitation drop-offs and pick-ups. Child custody laws need to be framed not only in the context of past histories of violence, but also to pre-empt the possibility for future violence.

We need no imagination to see the outcome of these policies – they reflect current divorce laws in British Columbia's Family Law Act, which the Green Party has held up as an example of how federal divorce law should work. In B.C., domestic violence is not taken into account in the context of custody disputes. This can result in some strange legal situations. One common situation is when a woman has a restraining order on her husband, but is legally mandated to provide him with access to the child. This can expose the woman to the risk of violence and jeopardize her restraining order and current custody arrangement. If she fails to provide access, regardless of her fears for the safety of herself and her child, she can lose custody and it can be granted to the abuser.

By awarding joint-custody by default, B.C.'s Family Law Act is as mistaken as a legal system that awards sole custody by default; each custody dispute needs to be considered on its own terms, and judges should have access to a wide array of legal tools they can use to render judgements tailored to each specific case. Judges aren't by any means perfect, but they're better than a unitary and totalizing legal standard. In arguing against equal parenting laws, I'm not suggesting that women should always be granted sole custody, or that women are more suited than men to raising children. Rather, I'm arguing that child custody disputes should be considered on a case by case basis, with all factors of the case – particularly those involving violence – taken into account.

In pushing for these reforms and condoning the violence they cause, the Green Party links itself ideologically with MRAs. It's worth noting that link isn't just ideological. The Green Party's equal parenting resolution was drafted and submitted by Denis Van Decker, an active member of the MRA group Fathers4Justice who has organized several protests against Canada's current divorce laws. The Green Party's ties with the Men's Rights movement run deep.

In the past, when Elizabeth May made anti-feminist statements on abortion the Green Party backtracked and equivocated. This time there's no denying Elizabeth May’s and the Green Party's long and sustained support for divorce law reform that would intensify domestic and post-separation violence, leave children vulnerable to abuse, and strip down what legal freedoms women currently possess.

Correction: The original version of this article listed An Act to amend the Divorce Act as Bill C-504. In reality, it's Bill C-560. The correct bill is now linked in the text of the article.


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