OTTAWA — Legislation filling a nearly 30-year-old gap in protection for women living on reserves passed through Parliament Tuesday.
The Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, also known as Bill S-2, addresses a void in laws dealing with marriage breakdowns on reserves in place since 1986. That year the Supreme Court ruled provincial laws dealing with marriage breakdowns did not apply on reserves.
Manitoba Tory Leader Brian Pallister was thrilled S-2 passed, as it was his private member’s bill in 2006 that started the ball rolling to fill that void.
"It kind of made my day," Pallister said.
Matrimonial property is the term used to describe assets owned by one or both spouses but used by them both. The largest asset is normally the family home. Most provincial laws allow both spouses to claim a part of their joint assets when a marriage breaks down.
But with no laws on the subject on reserves, many First Nations women were left with nothing, forced from their homes, unable to see their children, and with little ability to fight back.
Unless their name alone is on the certificate of possession for the reserve home, a judge couldn’t even issue a protective order to keep an abusive spouse away from it.
Bill S-2 compels First Nations to enact their own laws regarding the use, occupation and possession of family homes on reserves and the division of other property between spouses or common-law partners.
Until First Nations pass their own laws, there are provisions in the bill to be followed. Those include equal rights for both partners to live in the family home and an allowance so courts may order a spouse to be excluded from the home in situations of family violence.
Many First Nations don’t like the bill, saying it infringes their rights, doesn’t include proper dispute mechanisms and doesn’t address many of the underlying causes of family breakdown such as housing shortages. It also doesn’t give women any better access to legal aid to help them use the courts to assert their rights.