Despite the federal government’s promise to resume deliberations this fall about legislation to ensure that First Nations’ women on reserves have rights to their matrimonial homes, no debate has yet been scheduled on the parliamentary calendar.
The law is long overdue, many aboriginal women say.
“It’s about time,” says Shirley Williams, an Ojibwa and Odawa elder who teaches native studies at Peterborough’s Trent University.
Bill C-8 would ensure women on reserves have the same legal rights as other Canadians to matrimonial property, meaning they and their children are entitled to court-ordered protection to remain in their home in cases of domestic violence.
Currently, many victimized women on reserves and their children must leave their homes because there is no legal framework protecting their right to stay.
The legislation closes a legal gap the Supreme Court and a legal action by the Native Women’s Association of Canada pointed out, says Line Paré, director general of external relations and gender issues for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
This bill follows legislation the federal government passed in 2008, repealing Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The section previously exempted First Nations people from claiming remedies to discrimination arising from the Indian Act.
For Williams, the laws begin to remedy problems she acknowledges.
“There’s still a lot of physical abuse and violence on reserves towards women because, according to the Indian Act, men are the head of the households,” Williams says.
Williams attributes that inequality to assimilation and education about the gender roles that conquering Europeans instilled.
“That’s how we were trained, how (we) were taught, that men ruled the world. That’s not the way it was before the Europeans came to Canada,” Williams insists.
Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, is also deeply concerned about the level of domestic violence and inequity aboriginal women face on and off reserve. The new legislation is only an interim step, she stresses.
“Right now, this matrimonial real property legislation doesn’t work,” she says. “There were other issues that needed to be addressed — like violence, housing and access to justice. You can’t just have a piece of legislation drafted without acknowledging the non-legislative pieces that go with it.”
Those non-legislative pieces include safe housing, access to lawyers and money to pay them, Jacobs points out.
Paré says First Nations’ women can use legal aid programs, although she acknowledges there is no additional funding to increase that aid in this bill.