Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bill gives rights to native women

Tory leader to lobby MPs this week

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OTTAWA -- Manitoba Conservative Leader Brian Pallister is returning to familiar territory today but in a very different role.

Pallister, who was acclaimed to the top Tory job in Manitoba in July, arrives in Ottawa for meetings with various federal officials.

It's his first official visit to Ottawa since he stepped down as the MP for Portage-Lisgar in 2008.

He's coming to advocate on various issues, including one he championed as an MP -- marital property rights for aboriginal women.

Currently, women living on reserves have no protection or security if they get divorced.

A government bill that would address the glaring silence on matrimonial property in the Indian Act is set to be debated in the House of Commons on Thursday.

Pallister is doing some lobbying on the issue while he is here.

"I've fought this battle for a long time," he said.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba called for changes to address this problem more than 23 years ago. So did the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1997. The United Nations identified it as a problem in 1998. In the last 10 years, both the Senate and the House of Commons have recommended the government rectify this issue.

The federal government took up the cause when the Conservatives came to power in 2006, but legislation has died on the order paper three times, in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

In 2010, it made it all the way through the Senate, but was never called for debate in the House of Commons and it died when the 2011 election was called.

The current bill, S-2, was introduced in the Senate last September and passed the Senate in December.

It got first reading in the House of Commons Dec. 8 but hasn't been called by the government to proceed since then.

Last summer, before he'd been acclaimed as Manitoba's Tory leader, Pallister began to put pressure on his former colleagues in Ottawa to move the bill forward.

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.

In most cases, when a marriage breaks down, there are provincial laws that govern how that property should be divided. Normally, both spouses have a claim to part of the asset.

However, on reserves there are no laws that govern this. Provincial laws haven't applied since a Supreme Court ruling in 1986, and the Indian Act is silent about it.

It has meant many women on reserves are left with nothing when a marriage breaks down and they are kicked out of their home and unable to see their children. Unless their name alone is on the certificate of possession for their home on a reserve, judges cannot order that the woman remain in the home or even that an abusive spouse must stay away from it.

Bill S-2 attempts to fill the void in the law by providing temporary provisions for First Nations until they can enact their own laws to address the use, occupation and possession of family homes, and the division of other property between spouses or common-law partners.

The provisional rules would include equal rights for both partners to live in the family home and the ability for a court to order an abusive spouse to be forced to stay out of the home in the event of domestic violence.

First Nations members have a mixed reaction to the bill.

The Native Women's Association of Canada is mildly receptive but worries there isn't enough in it to address the social problems that contribute to family breakdown. They also worry about what happens when homes are occupied by multiple families.

It is not uncommon to have two or three families sharing the same home on a reserve, where housing is at a premium and overcrowding common.

The Assembly of First Nations worries the bill doesn't include an appropriate dispute-settlement mechanism and isn't comprehensive enough to address all areas in which disputes arise.

After 25 years of no matrimonial property rights on reserves, it is high time something is done. No piece of legislation is perfect but this bill has been introduced and debated for six years. It has been amended to address many of the concerns raised in previous bills.

It is 2012. It is high time Parliament finally deals with this situation so women on reserves have the same rights and protections as women elsewhere in Canada.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2012 A7

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