Monday, December 18, 2000

One phone call away from ruin

Bill 117 means that in Ontario women can trash men's lives with ease

by Eli Schuster
Report Newsmagazine

Observers of Ontario politics remember the 1995 provincial election campaign, when Liberal leader Lyn McLeod's views on domestic violence were interpreted as "shout at your spouse, lose your house. Ms. McLeod insisted she had not intended that her position be interpreted as an attack on men, but when the smoke cleared, her party had blown a 30-point lead in the polls and Conservative leader Mike Harris was premier. Now, say critics of Ontario's proposed Bill 117, the Tory government's Domestic Violence Protection Act, Ms. McLeod may wind up with the last laugh.

Introduced to the Ontario Legislature in September as the government's response to several high-profile murder-suicides, Bill 117 is the cornerstone of the Harris government's $135-million campaign against domestic violence. The bill would replace non-criminal restraining orders with "intervention orders that are clearer and more enforceable," according to a written statement from the office of the attorney general. For the first time, violations of the new orders will be designated a criminal offence.

Expected to become law by the end of November (a month officially designated for the past 15 years in Ontario as "Wife Assault Prevention Month"), the new law broadly defines domestic violence to include everything from outright sexual assault to any "series of acts which collectively causes fear for safety," including any thing a woman interprets as "contacting, communicating with, observing or recording the person." It would also "more broadly define domestic relationships to include dating relationships and family members who reside together...allow victims to obtain an intervention order quickly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," and grant victims (mostly female) "the exclusive possession of the residence to the victim, or exclusive use of certain property such as credit cards and bank accounts."

Brian Jenkins, a spokesman for the group Fathers Are Capable Too, has a problem with the law's inclusion of "an intentional or reckless act or omission that causes fear for safety." That could mean anything, he says. "If I leave my garage door open and the squirrels get in and destroy everything that belongs to my wife, have I committed a reckless act of omission or domestic abuse?" Toronto lawyer Waiter Fox sees civil liberties issues arising within Bill 117. "It's allegation-oriented, meaning you don't even have to shout at your spouse to lose your house -- you just have to be accused of it," he says. Moreover, the Act would allow for intervention orders to be given without the other side present. And the legislation seems to imply that a judge can make an injunction "even when the abuser has been acquitted of a criminal act." "That sounds like something [former NDP attorney general] Marion Boyd would say," he says. Others question whether or not Bill 117 oversteps provincial-federal boundaries. Liberal MP Roger Galloway has stated that "the Criminal Code is being swept aside by this bill."

Spokesmen for Attorney General James Flaherty refused to respond to specific questions from this magazine. But Mr. Flaherty addressed Bill 117's critics in a November 13 letter to the Ottawa Citizen. He describe the new law as "complementary to the Criminal Code of Canada" with built-in safeguards to prevent abuses. Emergency orders will only be issued by a judge or justice of the peace who "would have to be satisfied that violence has occurred," he wrote. And "either party would have 30 days to ask for a court hearing to terminate or change an intervention order, and the hearing would have to be held within 14 days of the request." Moreover, notice would have to be given to the other party if an applicant wanted exclusive use of property. It would be up to judges to decide which parts of an intervention order would apply in a given situation.

The Act might function relatively well, assuming it is interpreted by sensible judges, Mr. Fox says. But experience with the courts has left him skeptical. In fact, if a woman is awarded possession of a home and other property through an intervention order, he says, she will be able to hire a good lawyer and keep the alleged abuser in court for up to two years. Family law is biased towards women, Mr. Fox argues. "What happens when a woman doesn't show up for a discovery?" he asks. "In family court, nothing. We don't sanction women in our courts."

A self-described lifelong Tory, Mr. Fox sees a ministry largely driven by left-leaning and feminist civil servants armed with misleading statistics on domestic violence. (He believes domestic violence is a two-way street between men and women, and that a lot of female-on-male violence goes unreported.) He also worries the government is taking its conservative supporters for granted. "How many votes" he asks painfully, "are they going to get from [feminist commentators] Judy Rebick and Michele Landsberg?"

The effect of the bill is best summed up by Dori Gospordaric, co-founder of Second Spouses of Canada. "Any man in my life is simply one phone call away from total destruction (when Bill 117 becomes law)".