Redefining “Family” and Reconstructing Child Custody in Canada

  • Supriya Sethi University of Waterloo


This paper examines the historical revolution of custody regimes in Canada, with an emphasis on the twentieth century to custody practices in courts today. The law has undergone numerous critical reforms to restructure what it means to be a ‘political family’ from a socio-legal perspective. The last decade we have seen a shift in the framework that is used to define the concept of family that has paralleled changes in cultural values, gender roles and parental responsibilities. The family model now largely focuses on the child as the centerpiece of the framework, which has been reflected in recent legal reform and ongoing revisions. The shared responsibility of raising a child as a married couple reflects both the slight shift in the gender roles defined by society and the changing configuration of family dynamic from the nuclear family norm (traditional) towards a “political family”. In the political family, whether the family is “traditional” or “alternative”, each family is understood as a product of collective decisions and values. As a result of the shift towards the understanding of intersectionality within families, and acceptance of the complexity of families, legal activism in family law studies are pushing for legislation that can provide an all- encompassing framework to better aid judges within the family courts to reduce the potential for bias in judicial review. Family law studies are challenging the language around rights and obligations within a family and pushing for a “responsibility framework”. Further, the field is emphasizing a child-centered approach to divorce cases, to assess what is ultimately in the best interest of the child. As we understand the role of the family in society, we need to emphasize the responsibility of a parent and what it means to be a parent to better understand what ‘custody’ of a child entails in today’s society.