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Anne Cools' absence of malice Outspoken senator says she doesn't take sides on the family

National Post, Linda Frum, Saturday, December 19, 1998

Inside her Senate office, Anne Cools sits in a standard-issue, red leather chair, talking on the telephone. "Just one question, my dear," she says to a friend on the phone. "When I do that breathing exercise you taught me, do I say, 'Aah,' or do I say, 'Ooh?' "

Turning her attention to me, Ms. Cools explains: "It's just that I need to reduce my stress. It's these feminists. I don't understand them."

Senator Anne CoolsJim Young, National Post / Senator Ann Cools: 'Let's protect women from men, but men from women, and children from both.'

And Senator Cools believes that they don't understand her. She was one of 23 committee members to produce November's highly controversial For the Sake of the Children, a report on child custody and access, but it is she who has become most prominently identified with the report and its recommendation to end the tradition of awarding sole custody of children to mothers after a divorce. And it is she who has become the lightning rod for feminist rage.

One of the most oft-written suggestions made about Ms. Cools is that she is an "anti-feminist." It does seem a strange accusation, given that she was appointed to the Senate in 1984 by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, after a career as a social worker and an administrator of shelters for battered women and children. But in the last decade, Ms. Cools has become closely identified with the fathers' rights movement and she has lost many of her former friends.

"People claim that I have described myself as anti-feminist," she explains. "But I never have. There was a time when I would have described myself as a feminist, but that was a long time ago and it is quite inaccurate."

So does that make you a former feminist?

"You can say I was a former teenager," says Ms. Cools with exasperation. "Why don't you describe me as a former child?"

Ms. Cools resents the trajectory of this discussion. "I am here to tell you that divorce is not a 'women's issue.' It seems to me that divorce involves men, women, and children. . . . Children deserve maximum access and meaningful involvement with both parents, even when those parents don't like each other . . . The law must not be an instrument of malice. Nature gave children two parents. That is the natural order of things, so let us organize the legal order around the natural one."

It is a laudable sentiment. Something few could object to. But despite her committee's admirable attempt to address the crisis of fatherlessness among Canada's children, the Committee on Custody and Access has presented the country with a report containing some frighteningly Soviet recommendations. There is, for example, the recommendation that couples in contested divorces be obliged to attend state-sponsored "education sessions" and that their fitness for custody be measured according to a willingness to participate in those sessions. There is also a recommendation that the "tender years doctrine," which holds that very young children are best left in the care of their mothers be abandoned.

But most importantly, by suggesting that neither parent be empowered over the other after a marriage dissolves, the report is inviting the state and its court-appointed social workers, to become the final arbiters of what is in the best interest of other people's children.

Could it be that Anne Cools, once one of Canada's most famous student radicals of the 1960s, who will always be best remembered for her role in the destruction of a computer centre at Sir George Williams College in Montreal, would welcome this increased role for the state in family life?

"No," she says. "No, I wouldn't. I am not wedded to the whole package of those recommendations. I fought for shared parenting and the related issues. I used my political currency very carefully. To the extent that I got what I wanted, I can live with the rest The parent education did not come from me. My issues are straightforward: Two parents. That's all I'm saying . . . I am convinced that one can trace the sources of the social problems of our community to inadequacy in parenting."

After two hours, it becomes very obvious, and it is very affecting to learn what Anne Cools wants: She simply wants all children to enjoy the benefits and love of a father. Her political agenda seems no more complicated, or focused, than that.

She is wounded by critics who object to her report on the grounds that enforced joint custody will expose children to abusive fathers. After all, she has devoted much of her life to aiding the abused.

"I would have thought it was self-evident that as a community we all repudiate violence," she says. "Obviously if there are individual cases that are so gross, those cases will be dealt with by court order."

And here Ms. Cools launches into the language that drives her feminist opponents crazy. "I have no problems with protecting people. But let's protect everybody. Let's protect women from men but also men from women and children from both . . . Human beings are flawed. We are all sinners. Men and women are equally capable of being bad parents . . . Madame Justice Bertha Wilson once made a speech about the inherent ethical nature of women. Well, if you believe that, you really do believe that the moon is made of green cheese."

Ms. Cools' jaded view is the result of a long career in the field. Too many of the abused children she has cared for were the victims of assault by mothers or the sexual partners of mothers.

"The person who is least likely to abuse a child is a married father," she explains. "The person who is most likely is a single, unmarried mother. Once we thought violence was a one-way street. But over time we've discovered another side to it. And that's the thing about human suffering. There's so much of it. We've known for a long time that infanticide is a woman's crime. But since the idea is so repugnant, we push it away."

A life-long child advocate, Ms. Cools, 55, has no children of her own. She was married for the first time 12 years ago to a man who is 6 years older and who has two grown children from a first marriage. I wonder if an avoidance of marriage and children was a political statement she once chose to make.

"It wasn't even that profound," she replies. "I was just so busy."

As the product of a political family -- her first cousin is currently the deputy prime minister of Barbados, and her uncle was Barbados' minister of health at the time Ms. Cools immigrated to Canada at the age of 13 -- her primary, youthful ambition was to lead a life of public service.

"You know, youth is short. And having a family was always something I would do later. And then one day I looked up and I was 35. You have to understand I did not spend a lot of time seeking out dates. I would bike around Toronto visiting my shelters. A lot of these children never had people be kind to them. And I used to go and gather them up and take them swimming in the evenings. And that was for fun. And that was my life."

I suggest to Ms. Cools an obvious pop psychology theory about her activism: That by having no children of her own, she has sought fulfillment by being mother to all. "I have spent my life looking after people's children," she agrees. "And when you have that element in your life, your life is full."

But as for pop psychology, Ms. Cools offers a more interesting explanation for her political motivations. Two of her five siblings died of childhood illnesses. "I saw my parents lose children," she says. "I understood very early in life what it meant for parents to lose a child. I've always known a parent cannot recover from that. And this is why I will not tolerate the thought of any parent taking a child away from another parent."

Parenthood she believes is "the single greatest thing that any human being will ever do. I tell young people to have children."

Senator Cools pauses. She's forgotten something. "But they should get married, and stay married too!"

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