Toronto Star

April 9, 2000

There's more behind father's `martyrdom'

By Michelle Landsberg
Toronto Star

[By Michelle Landsberg] DARRIN WHITE of Prince George, B.C., who committed suicide last month at the age of 34, is the new martyr of the fathers' rights movement.

White's death was seized upon by the National Post as a symbol of the ``anguish'' suffered by men in Canada's divorce courts. ``Anti-male bias in family courts blamed for man's suicide,'' read the Post headline.

The story claimed that White, a railway engineer, was involved in ``a custody battle'' and hanged himself ``after the court ordered him to pay $2,070 a month in family support'' even though ``he told the court he was on stress leave and had a take-home pay of $1,000 a month.''

On top of that, The Post quoted a fathers' rights activist who said White ``was thrown out of his house on two days' notice with nowhere to live.''

Furthermore, White was so ``concerned'' about a 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship that he had arranged to pay her $439 a month.

Homeless, broke, out of work, forced by the court to pay money he didn't have - who wouldn't feel pity, even anger, for this man's plight?

It's sad enough when someone kills himself, leaving behind four children - the 14-year-old, and the three others, ages 5, 9 and 10, from his 12-year marriage to Madeleine White. But to be hounded to death by a ruthless court and an implacable wife, a wife who is also a railway engineer but hasn't worked in five years? That's deplorable.

Except that's not what happened. The tone and content of the story change completely on a careful reading of Master Doug Baker's reasons for judgment in the B.C. Supreme Court on Feb. 21.

Here's what emerges from the court records: Madeleine White was not working because, five years ago, the family abruptly moved from Ontario to British Columbia to accommodate Darrin's job, according to the judge's summary of the evidence:

``She says she was required, in short order, to cease her employment.'' Since that time, she was unable to find more than casual employment. When she left the family home with the three children in January, police charged Darrin with wife assault. The children stayed with Madeleine.

(Note: the Supreme Court appearance was not about a ``custody battle'' but merely and routinely to determine interim support).

Far from being ``thrown out'' of his home unexpectedly, Darrin remained in the family home - after, the judge noted, having quickly cleaned out most of the couple's joint account and deposited the money under his own name.

It was Madeleine who was homeless and penniless, according to an interview with her lawyer Darren Lindsay. She went on welfare while staying with the three children in a single room in a friend's apartment. During that time, Darrin gave her a total of $20, a sum dryly recorded by Master Baker. Nor did Darrin keep up the mortgage payments on the family home. Madeleine, fearing a default, arranged to pay the mortgage out of their joint line of credit, as noted by Baker.

Perhaps Darrin White's biggest mistake was to get caught up in the fathers' rights movement and to go to court, not with a lawyer, but with Todd Eckert, president of the Parent-Child Advocacy Coalition. After the outcry was raised about White's suicide, the Law Society of British Columbia issued an unusual ``warning'' to the public not to rely on untrained advocates, pointing out that in White's case ``it appears . . . that the standard evidentiary procedures were not followed.''

In court on Feb. 10, for example, White and Eckert insisted that White was on stress leave at $400 a week, and they themselves said this leave would be for a maximum of eight weeks. But they provided no evidence of the temporary reduction in pay - no cheque stubs, doctor's certificates or employment contracts, in the judge's words, to support the claim.

Indeed, you would have to be a clairvoyant to make sense of White's financial statements to the court. His records showed that he earned an average of $67,500 annually over the previous three years. He told the court (without corroboration) that he earned $60,000 in 1999 and expected to earn $51,000 in the year 2000.

Furthermore, in what the judge dubbed ``an amazing coincidence,'' White flourished an agreement dated just three days before the court process began, in which he suddenly undertook to pay $439 a month to 14-year-old Ashlee, who lives with her mother in Saskatchewan. Even by his own accounting, White had never sent this daughter anything more than an erratic $150 a month. The judge concluded that the belated arrangement for Ashlee's welfare was ``an agreement purely of convenience'' in order to show that it would be a hardship for White to support his wife and three younger children.

Even more preposterously, White insisted that his living expenses amounted to $71,000 a year - this at a time when he was pleading hardship and poverty. The judge found Darrin's description of his expenses ``unreliable'' and several of them ``if not fanciful, at the very least speculative.'' He questioned Eckert's ``curious logic'' in insisting that White's income would now be a mere $20,000 while his expenses would be more than triple that sum.

The judge found it ``problematic'' to estimate White's true income. Finally, he scrupulously subtracted the maximum of eight weeks of reduced pay for the undocumented stress leave. That left an estimated $60,300 to be divided.

Having given Madeleine and the children exclusive occupancy of the house, with a non-entry order against Darrin White, Master Baker then awarded Madeleine $1,000 a month interim spousal maintenance (she would pay taxes and the mortgage) and $1,071 to the children, according to the federal child support guidelines.

No balanced observer could conclude that Darrin White hanged himself because of this court order alone. That the roots of suicide are deep and complex should be obvious to anyone - as the Law Society stressed in its strong defence of the judge's ruling.

But in the current atmosphere of the fathers' rights movement - a loose coalition of small, vociferous groups - the decibel level of complaint, grievance, rage and emotional intensity almost matches that of the Cuban exiles in Miami, those who are so determined to save Elian Gonzalez from communism.

The ``martyrdom'' of Darrin White has now been enshrined by the right-wing press and held up as an inflammatory symbol. The fathers' rights movement might have learned a sobering lesson from White's experience - that it's folly to go to court without a lawyer, without documents, without evidence, and with highly questionable claims. But, thanks to the version offered them by The Post, they've probably learned only more grievance, more hate and more unreason.



Michele Landsberg's column usually appears Saturday and Sunday. Her e-mail address is mlandsb@thestar.ca

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