Chris Cobb
Southam Newspapers

It's been eight years since James Atwill last saw his only child. He writes to her every two weeks and sends her cards and gifts on Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter. He doesn't know whether she sees any of them.

His daughter, living with her mother in New Brunswick, is now 12 years old. When the 53-year-old Atwill told his story last June to a special Parliamentary committee of MPs and senators studying child custody and access, his words touched New Brunswick Senator Erminie Cohen deeply.

"From the first night (she) was born," Atwill told the committee, "I participated in taking care of her. I prepared her food, fed her, bathed her and clothed her, played with her and put her to bed. I spent so much time with her that she was called my shadow. Whenever you saw me, you would see my daughter.

"I don't know what she looks like," he continued. "I have never gotten a picture of her. I don't know whether she likes school, whether she is healthy, goes to church, or if she has been told about me. I miss her every day and pray for her."

After the hearing, Cohen went over to Atwill, asked him a couple of questions to confirm what she had already guessed: By remarkable coincidence, she knew his daughter.

"The more he spoke," Cohen said in an interview last week, "the more I realized I knew who this young lady was. I also told him she is very bright, very pretty and very musical. I wanted him to know that he could be very proud of her.

"His eyes filled with tears and he asked me if I could get a photograph of her. I said if (I could) I would send him a copy. Beyond that, I couldn't get involved because it becomes too personal. I don't know whether I should have gone over to him but I followed my heart. It lightened my heart to tell him what I knew about her."

Atwill arrived home from work on March 17, 1988 - the day after his daughter's second birthday - to find his wife and child gone. The couple had not been getting along but the child was the light of his life.

The former firefighter is one of thousands of men and women across Canada who are joining support groups - about 50 so far - to fight for changes in custody and access laws and what they see as other institutionalized inequities. They want, for example, access to the $20 million the federal government currently spends annually on women's groups.

The main focus is the special Senate-Commons committee on custody and access, which will make recommendations to Parliament next month on changes to the 30-year-old Divorce Act.

"Real equality in human relationships is making itself felt and there is an assertion of the importance of fathers in children's lives. Watch families and see little children with their mothers and fathers. I do not understand how anyone could drive either one of those parents out of a child's life."

- Senator Anne Cools

Atwill agreed to his wife having interim custody of his daughter. The court ordered he was to have reasonable access and that his daughter would remain in Ontario - even though she was already living in New Brunswick.

Communication between Atwill and his former wife was through lawyers and after six months of wrangling, he drove the 1,120 kilometres to see his child for the first time since she left. He was a stranger to her.

His estranged wife made a formal offer through his lawyer to relieve him of all future financial obligation in exchange for him relinquishing all access. He refused and, he says, continues to meet his monthly financial obligations.

"My last visit was in 1990," he told the committee. "My daughter was so overwrought she became sick to her stomach. She was a scared little girl who did not know what to expect from me. I was the bogeyman from Ottawa who was going to take her away."

Atwill told the committee he decided to save the child more emotional upheaval and voluntarily stopped the visits.

Senator Anne Cools, a committee member who has devoted years to family issues and campaigning for gender equality in custody and access cases, wants shared parenting to be the legal norm and says she will accept nothing less when she and her colleagues draw up final recommendations.

"There is an enormous social transformation happening on the ground in this country," she says.

"Real equality in human relationships is making itself felt and there is an assertion of the importance of fathers in children's lives. Watch families and see little children with their mothers and fathers. I do not understand how anyone could drive either one of those parents out of a child's life.

"I see no reason why post-divorce children cannot keep having maximum contact with both parents," she says. "Why should they be boxed in? Human relationships need to be naturally spontaneous to grow. Children should be able to come home from school, pick up the phone and say, 'Dad, come pick us up in an hour.'

"I understand that people who go through divorce feel betrayed and broken, but I also know that the day will come when they get over the loss. My position is that the law and the system should not support the acrimony."

Cools says pro-male groups are mushrooming across Canada because of growing injustice.

"Imbalances in the administration of the law went so far down one side," she says. "So many individuals have been so brutalized that they have organized and reached out to give each other support."

Conrad Winn, president of the polling firm Compas, says the growth of men's groups is not surprising and is evidence that gender issues are becoming a major factor in Canadian society.

"There is a large amount of sympathy for men, especially among older women," says Winn, who has tracked gender issues. "Interestingly, there is more support generally among women than you might expect. Partly, it's because of growing cynicism about - and among - feminist groups and partly because there is more opportunity for middle-class women than there once was."

Men have been slower to organize than women, says Heidi Nabert, director of both Father's Resources International and the National Shared Parenting Association.

"From my observations, men approach the grieving process differently to women," she says. "Women can do therapy over the kitchen table with a friend but men can't. The period of denial seems to be longer for men because they have been conditioned that showing any weakness is not manly. I've seen men messed up over losing their kids, and beaten up by the courts, and I'm forever amazed how few of them don't just completely lose it."

James Atwill still keeps a bedroom for his daughter at his Cumberland, Ont., home and marks his calendar to make sure he doesn't miss sending his twice-monthly letter.

He says he is over any anger and now simply hopes his daughter will come to find him when she gets older. He photocopies all his letters because he wants to be able to show that he did not desert her.

"It's too late for me," said Atwill in an interview, "because I've lost all those years. I never imagined it could turn out like it did and if I can help it happening to someone else, I will."

[James Atwill]


The federal minister responsible for the status of women says her department's $17 million budget is for women only and men's groups will have to look elsewhere for funding.

But a national pro-men group, charging gender discrimination under the Constitution, vowed this weekend to pursue class action suits against the government.

Danny Guspie, head of the National Shared Parenting Association, said after a meeting in Calgary on Sunday that his association would join others in the constitutional challenge. Guspie's group is one of many pushing for changes to Canada's child custody and access laws which they say lock too many fathers out of the lives of their children.

"Giving money to women and not men is assuming that men have all the power," said Guspie. "That's a sterotype and not true."

Men and grandparent groups fighting for custody and access changes have to fund themselves. They have complained, for example, that they prepared reports and presentations for recent hearings by a special parliamenatry committee on child custody with their own money while women's groups did the same with taxpayers' money.

But Hedy Fry, secretary of state of Status of Women Canada, said in an interview that men will have to look elsewhere unless they want to study issues related to women.

Despite a quarter century of federal financial support, she said, Canadian women are still not on "a level playing field" with men.

"Hopefully there will come a time," she said, "when we won't have need for equality programs for women because men and women will be competing on a level playing field. Traditionally, 51 per cent of our resources have not had the same opportunity as the 49 per cent have had."

"If there is a men's group," she added, "or a Martian group, that comes and says, "we agree with you, and we want to work in our community to change this' . . . if the project was a good one we would fund them. But funding custody and access (issues) per se doesn't fall under women's equality, that would be a children's issue. But if the group wanted to compare and contrast the problems women and men face with this, it would be a reasonable kind of project."

Reform MP Inky Mark says Fry's department needs re-evaluating.

"'There is no equal access to funding," said Mark. "For whatever reason, men have been basically neglected. If we really believe in the principle of equality in this country, we need to be equal. A lot of the women I speak to say feminist groups don't represent them. If that's the case, who do they represent? These things need to be examined."

Fry says her department is constantly re-evaluating its program.

"It's constantly being overhauled," she said. "A year and a half ago we realized that as you move towards equality, you move progressively to new barriers. We have changed funding criteria - focusing on things that are still a problem but not on things that aren't any more. We have moved on and hopefully we will continue to move on until there is nowhere else to go."

Senator Anne Cools, a member of the parliamentary committee studying custody and access, agrees with Mark.

"When there is a kitty to study gender," she said, "let's study gender. Gender analysis has come to mean for women only and my view is that fathers who have been dispossessed of everything, including their children, should be able to get assistance."

Hundreds of women's groups received more than $8 million last year from the federal government.

The grants included $2.3 million given to 93 groups involved in issues related to violence.

Status of Women Canada has an annual budget of $17 million. About $9 million goes towards departmental costs and the rest is given in grants to women's groups or programs.


  • Status of Women Canada
  • Parents and Children
  • The Parent's Ear
  • United Fathers of America
  • Fathers International