Feds make move to create matrimonial equality on reserves

Property rights bill currently being reviewed, some question inclusiveness of proposal

Legislation is being considered federally that would assure thousands of individuals on reserves across Canada equal matrimonial property rights. Cindy Titus

The Canadian federal government is considering introducing a new law that would give aboriginal women living on reserves equal rights in matrimonial law.

Senate Bill S-4, Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, is the result of human rights groups, especially women’s rights groups, asking for something to fill the gap for on-reserve individuals who do not have equal rights in splitting up assets in cases of separation and divorce or death of a spouse.

Currently, those living on reserves do not have access to provincial laws that include equal rights to occupancy of the family home and equal division of the value of the house.

The legislation, presently being reviewed by the House of Commons, would also provide protection orders and temporary occupation of a home in the case of family violence.

“The government feels that it is unacceptable that First Nations people do not have access to these same protections simply because of where they live,” said Margot Geduld, the acting manager of media relations for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

Geduld said that it is important to realize that this bill would offer immediate protection to 75,000 individuals who are currently without legal matrimonial property protections.

There is no consultation with grassroots people and that is something that needs to be addressed.

Allan Cochrane, University of Winnipeg

“It is also important for First Nations self-governance, striking a balance between the need to provide immediate protection for those who need it, and the time required for First Nations communities to develop their own culturally specific laws and processes to deal with this issue,” she said.

Joseph Quesnel, a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, feels that First Nations leaders should accept the law as a compromise in favour of protecting their people over the issue of taking pride in self-governance.

“Vulnerable people – women – ... should not have to wait for every first nation to adopt a code regarding matrimonial property rights,” he said. “Aboriginal organizations need to work with their communities and address the concerns.”

He said it can often be difficult to hear what the average band member thinks about any legislation being introduced because they often don’t have organizations or lobby groups, and the mainstream organizations speak for chiefs and leadership issues.

“There is no grassroots organization representing these people,” he said.

Allan Cochrane, a student representative for the University of Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Student Services Centre, agrees that more consultation is needed before federal bills are introduced.

“There is a need for matrimonial laws, but have the women been consulted before this goes to the House of Commons?” he said. “There is too much of ‘we know what’s best for you.’ There is no consultation with grassroots people and that is something that needs to be addressed.”

Cochrane, who grew up on the Peguis First Nation reserve in northern Manitoba, said that a major concern for aboriginal people is that with the implementation of laws, the Indian Act of 1876 will be abolished.

“Whether aboriginal people like it or not, the Indian Act is the only thing that governs our lives,” he said. “It’s the only piece of legislation that is there for us and the government keeps creating bills that undermine it. It’s at the point where it could be eroded away.”

Cochrane added that regardless of any federal laws, the land and the home on a reserve belongs to the band and the community, not by the person who holds possession.

Published in Volume 65, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 10, 2011)

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