This week, let me digress a bit from the family law field, although I think this topic is directly related to the issues we mediators face on a daily basis. If any of you have watched the Rick Mercer report on CBC television, you are undoubtedly a fan of his “weekly rant” in which he highlights the absurd aspects of the various programs of those in government. I certainly do not have his talent for comedy nor his linguistic skills but then this blog is not about comedy today.

For those mediators who daily deal with conflict resolution, it is a difficult task to bring parties to agreement given the emotional aspects of the family law conflict. This task is rendered all the more difficult when we take into account the culture of our current society which has basically allowed capitalism to run unchecked. No, I am not a Communist and, as a lawyer mediator, I certainly have every respect for capitalism – provided that it is tempered by appropriate regulation, which, by the way, it once was.  The subprime scandal in the US is a typical example of uncontrolled capitalism and, as can be seen, lack of control is extremely damaging to the economy which in turn is extremely damaging to the family unit, however that family is comprised. Maximizing corporate profit is now more important than keeping people working. People who lose their jobs as a result of this culture begin to lose their sense of self-esteem and self-worth. They become depressed and family relationships naturally begin to fail.

At the root of all this of course is greed.  There are those who seem to think that they should have the vast majority of the fruits of our society. These folks have always been around but for some reason we now seem to be willing to buy into this mentality. Why? And why am I talking about this now?

In my practice, more recently and more often than ever, I have come across a few microcosmic examples of this greed. I have seen perfectly profitable corporations retain outside managers and consultants whose sole purpose in life is to make work intolerable for any highly paid individuals. They are able to drive out good workers who earn high wages so that the company can replace those people with workers who earn half the amount. The company thereby substantially increases its already acceptable profit to greater heights so that its CEO and senior management can reap the rewards. The CEO of course has no long-term vision for the company because he or she is only in power for 3 to 5 years. They seem to think that they need to generate as much wealth for themselves (and the shareholders)  as they can in that short period of time and the best way to do that as to eliminate or significantly reduce wage costs as quickly as possible. It does not matter to them after they are gone from their post as CEO that the company can no longer function properly because its good workers have all retired or have been driven out of the company.

Our Canadian federal government, in its amendments to the employment insurance scheme, seems to completely endorse the corporate model outlined above. Workers are now told that if they do not accept lower paying jobs, they will not qualify for ongoing employment insurance payments. In other words, this government fully endorses the capitalistic approach of lowering wages so that corporate profits can be increased. Yet we know from other sources like the Toronto Star that the employment insurance premiums that are charged to workers and to employers reputedly generate more income for the government than it pays out in employment insurance payments to unemployed workers. In other words, there is enough money in the scheme to fund its obligations to unemployed workers. So the reason for this scheme can’t be that there is no money to fund the operation.  Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the Government philosophically supports driving Canadian workers’ wages down. The NDP party is hammering this home daily in the press. (No I am not an NDP supporter. In fact I am totally apolitical these days. )

How does this all affect family law?

Well the answer surely should be obvious. Our Canadian families are being placed under extreme stress through job loss or wage reduction or simply unwarranted pressure at work from bosses like the manager described above. This culture of greed is tearing families apart. When the spouses in such families separate, we often see both spouses unemployed for the first time in their lives. They often have children and are dividing up debt more than they are dividing up assets. The future looks bleak for them. More importantly to them the future is one of despair for their children. Their limited entitlement to employment insurance only increases this despair. Our finance minister tells them that “no job is a bad job”.  This brings to mind the famous statement purported to have been made by Marie Antoinette the French Empress who on the verge of the French Revolution said “Let them eat cake”, referring to the poor who were in the same kind of desperation then as our poor are now.  The fact that no job is a bad job is little solace to the family who is used to a middle-class income which has evaporated. They suddenly have to accept wages which require them to work two or three jobs, if they can find them, just to keep the payments on their homes. They hardly have time to devote to the needs of their children or their marital relationships.  And we wonder why the divorce rate is so high in our country.

Perhaps, (and it is just my opinion), we need a major cultural shift. We need a leadership contingent who believes that the culture of greed is wrong for our society and that there is a better way.  Perhaps we can look to models of government who value the sanctity of the individual more than the corporation. There are countries in the world that provide good models – Norway, Sweden quickly spring to mind but there are others. Why don’t we look to countries which promote values different than our currently misdirected sense that the maximization of corporate net profits is the only way to save ourselves?

 I fully acknowledge that not all relationships can succeed and that economic difficulties are not the sole source of family conflict. There are many other reasons for the failure of the family unit. But the culture of greed is pervasive and it affects both rich and poor families. This culture facilitates selfishness and in fact extols as a virtue the focus on self, “what’s in it for me”?  Marriage and family relationships are not about that – they are about love and often self-sacrifice – virtues which are not promoted in the current environment.  If our culture did shift and family relationships then lasted forever, I would be out of a job. But you know what? I would be happy. 

Thanks for letting me rant – Mr. Mercer please accept my apologies.