A Frontier Centre for Public Policy survey indicates that a majority of First Nations men and women support fair division of matrimonial property when relationships break down. Parliament, having wrestled too long with the issue, should pass the bill before it to do exactly that.
For years provincial laws have protected the rights of Canadian women to half the marital assets when a relationship dissolves. Yet, despite lobbying, parliamentary study and court challenges over the years, the same protection still eludes those who live on most reserves. That has seen women dumped from their homes with no legal recourse to claim assets of the marriage. The inequity makes First Nation women (the vast majority of those who suffer are women) second-class citizens.
The Frontier Centre’s survey of 1,091 men and women across First Nations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta indicates good support for matrimonial property laws — 77 per cent said "yes" or "perhaps" to the question. First Nations residents clearly see the lack of protection as a denial of equal rights.
The Senate last summer passed the Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, which awaits a vote in the House of Commons. Previous bills died on order papers, having come under attack by native leaders and groups who saw it as a denial of self-government. The Indian Act does not provide for bands to pass such a law; the Senate bill makes that possible.
The federal law would mirror provincial laws, allowing for equitable division of marital property. It would let a judge give a spouse sole occupancy of the home after break-up regardless if he or she is a band member.
The law would be in force for all First Nations without a matrimonial properties act, but bands can pass their own laws that are equal to or better than the federal law, defusing concerns over self-government. Parliament should pass the federal law and let First Nations imagine how they can improve on it.