The House resumed from May 27 consideration of the motion that Bill S-2, An Act respecting family homes situated on First Nation reserves and matrimonial interests or rights in or to structures and lands situated on those reserves, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Jim Hillyer (Lethbridge, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I was about to share some information about how much consultation had been conducted on this issue and how much debate had been held in the House of Commons and in the Senate.
Starting in June 2006, the government appointed a ministerial representative on matrimonial real property issues on reserves to start discussions with first nations communities to produce a report on the consultation process and ultimately to provide legislative options to address the issues.
Of course, she did not do this alone. The Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women's Association of Canada collaborated in the consultation process. Dozens of meetings were held to map out the direction and priorities that would take shape during the consultation phase. We had meetings to discuss how we would conduct the meetings. It sounds like a government project.
The Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations each received $2.7 million to consult not just with leaders, but with the residents of first nations and to record their opinions on the issue. The government also made a total of $11 million available to many other first nation organizations and councils, both national and regional, to provide input into the process. These organizations included, among others, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Indigenous Bar Association, the National Association of Friendship Centres and the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence.
Following the process, the ministerial representative created a comprehensive 500-page report detailing the massive problems that resulted from the lack of proper on-reserve property rights for married couples, especially for women. The report made many recommendations, which now are held within the legislation before us.
I will skip a lot of this because I only have four minutes now, but the point is this. This is not the first time a bill like this has been created. Over the years, since 2006, the bill has been recreated and re-debated many times, with many first nations groups included and many expert witnesses. The legislation contains all the improvements, all the recommendations, that have been included in the debate and research.
This is the point. Process is important. In fact, how we do things is almost as important as what we do, but eventually something must be done.
As I said before in my speech, and it bears repeating, the plight of first nations in our country is our great hypocrisy. It is no secret, even though we do not often face it, that our country shoulders a collective shame for what was done to the first ancestors, then the grandparents and even the parents of first nations. Even though we did not kick them off their land as is often said, our forebearers did, and the posterity of those who were kicked off their lands still lives on the reserves into which they were corralled.
It does not matter much now who caused the countless problems that still plagues our first nations, but they are not only our friends now and our neighbours, they are fellow citizens and even our brothers and our sisters.
I for one will not and cannot standby to let petty politics still hold some of these downtrodden hostage. It is not enough to visit the prisoners, the prisoners must be set free. This may sound dramatic and like so much rhetoric that is often said in politics, it will be just rhetoric unless something is done. This bill must be passed to help protect the women and children in first nations communities.
We talk about this collective shame, about how people were kicked off their land and put into bondage, and we try to solve that problem. At the same time, if we let the people who were in bondage be held in bondage even further because for some reason the Charter of Rights and the Constitution does not apply to them, as I said over and over again, that is hypocrisy and our collective shame and it must stop.
Great effort has been made to include all people involved in the consultation process. This is a great solution for people. We cannot wait until everyone agrees that it will be to their political advantage to pass this law. It is for the people who are repressed.
I am proud to stand in favour of Bill S-2. I encourage all my colleagues in the House to support Bill S-2 and set the prisoners free.
Hon. Rona Ambrose (Minister of Public Works and Government Services and Minister for Status of Women, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my remarks with the words of Betty Ann Lavallée, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. She has said that Bill S-2 is:
||—addressing the real human issue of an Aboriginal person, sometimes often taken for granted by other Canadians. A spouse within an Aboriginal relationship should not be denied or put out on the street alone and without any recourse because of a family or marital breakdown.
I agree with her completely. Her words are truly informed by her knowledge of the often harsh realities of the day-to-day life faced by many women residents of first nation communities.
At the end of the day, this bill is about one very simple thing, and that is equal rights.
As members know, in 1921, women in Canada were first given the right to vote in the 1921 federal election. However, that did not mean all women in Canada. In fact, aboriginal women, covered by the Indian Act, could not vote for band councils until 1951 and could not vote in federal elections until 1960.
Today, we are seeking to eliminate another unacceptable human rights issue. Through Bill S-2, we will finally be extending the same basic rights and protections to aboriginal women that all other Canadians already enjoy. I urge the opposition to stop denying aboriginal women equal rights and vote in favour of Bill S-2.
As my colleague said already, it has been over 25 years since the Supreme Court of Canada identified this legal gap that exists today on reserve and our government would finally close it with this bill. Bill S-2 proposes an effective solution to this injustice and we are proud to be the government to bring an end to it by providing women and children on reserve with legal protection.
As Minister for Status of Women, I feel strongly that the proposed legislation will provide options to women and children living on reserve who are experiencing family violence. Wives, spouses or common law partners who are living on reserve today face the reality that in the event of separation, divorce or death, the law currently does not protect their matrimonial real property interests or rights.
This is now our government's fourth attempt to pass this legislation. Clearly, as my colleague said before me, it is time to move forward with the bill.
Bill S-2, as proposed, will guarantee the matrimonial real property rights and interests of women who live on reserve and will protect spouses from violent domestic situations.
Statistics show that aboriginal women are almost three times more likely than non-aboriginal women to report being a victim of a violent crime, including spousal violence. Among victims of spousal violence, six to ten aboriginal women reported being injured. For comparison, the proportion was four in ten among non-aboriginal women.
According to the 2009 Statistics Canada “Women in Canada” report, 15% of all aboriginal women who were married or in a common law relationship had experienced spousal violence in the previous five years. In that same report, the rate among non-aboriginal women was 6%.
Nearly half of all aboriginal women who experienced spousal violence reported that they had been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or a knife. A similar proportion reported that there were many times they feared for their lives.
This legislation is about eliminating an injustice by giving on-reserve women access to the options that are available to all other Canadian women to date. However, most important, the bill would provide emergency protection orders to aboriginal women and children who are experiencing violence in the home.
Emergency protection orders clearly save lives. They are recognized by child and family justice advocates as one, if not the most significant, means for preventing family violence.
Several witnesses before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women acknowledged the need for matrimonial real property legislation.
A member of a first nation in Ontario, Rolanda Manitowabi, described how she and her common law partner had built a home together. She invested her life savings into that home and to protect here interests, she got the band to issue her a document naming her as the owner of the property. However, when she and her partner split up, she was evicted from her home. It was at that time she found out that the document in fact had absolutely no legal foundation. Bill S-2 would change that. About the bill, she stated, “I hope it's available to help other women and children on reserves”.
Jennifer Courchene, a member of a first nation in Manitoba, also appeared before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. Jennifer and her children became homeless after her abusive partner forced them out of their home. She said, “if there had been something [like this] to help us, we would have taken it, rather than be homeless, that's for sure”.
Aboriginal women on reserve who are not able to stay in the family home are forced to flee the reserve with their children, sometimes with nothing more than the clothes on their back, to a shelter or, even worse, somewhere homeless. Currently, a woman living on reserve who is a victim of violence has no legal protection other than pressing criminal charges. There is no mechanism to allow a parent and her children exclusive access to a family home.
I repeat the importance of using emergency protection orders to save lives. In the case of domestic violence and physical abuse, a court cannot order the spouse who holds the interest in the reserve home, which is almost always the male, to leave the home, even on a temporary basis. When a woman and her children are evicted from a family home on reserve, no judge currently has the power to intervene.
Extending the same rights that women off reserve have to aboriginal women living on reserve would address this dire situation. If emergency protection orders were enforced, abusers could be removed, allowing the women and children to find safety in the comfort of their own homes.
If aboriginal women were granted the ability to remain in the family home on reserve, they could escape situations of domestic violence, while the perpetrator was taken from the home, and they could stay to continue to care for their children and also maintain that vital access to the support in their own communities.
In addition to the protections provided by these orders, Bill S-2 would also provide for the granting of temporary exclusive occupation of the family home. This protection is important for two reasons. First, in situations of family violence, women could be granted temporary exclusive occupation of the home for a period of time extending past the emergency occupation.
Second, in the case of the death of a spouse or common law partner, the surviving spouse would be allowed to stay in the home for 180 days. During that time, the surviving spouse could apply for exclusive occupation of the family home for a period of time to be determined by the courts.
As my colleagues have said in the House many times, there has been a need for the bill for more than a quarter century. Our government has brought this issue before Parliament four times now, debating this issue in both chambers and in committee for more than 60 hours, and this includes more than 25 hours of debate on this particular iteration of the bill alone.
Yet after spending $8 million on 103 consultation sessions in 76 different communities across Canada, even after the Supreme Court of Canada has identified this legal gap and the United Nations Human Rights Council has identified this as a gap for aboriginal women in Canada, after countless reports and studies going back a quarter of a century, the opposition continues to propose that we need more talk. We have said clearly that we have had enough talk and it is time to act.
Some first nations have established matrimonial property rights, and I applaud them. However, similar legal regimes are not yet in place in hundreds of on-reserve communities across Canada. It is time that aboriginal women living on reserve shared the same rights as all other Canadian women.
As the Minister for Status of Women, I work very closely with my colleagues to address violence against aboriginal women, and we do this by supporting many projects that address this issue in a very comprehensive manner, the projects that build economic security and develop the leadership skills that prepare women to successfully escape violent domestic situations.
Since 2009, through the women's program, we have provided a great deal of funding in support of projects that helped to empower and protect aboriginal women and girls. For instance, the La Loche Friendship Centre Corporation is addressing violence against aboriginal women and girls living in northern Saskatchewan. With the support of community stakeholders—men, women, youth and elders—they will be able to better address violence faced by aboriginal women.
Actions taken by this government to end violence against women and girls include increasing funding to the women's program to its highest level in Canadian history. We have now funded more than 600 projects in Canada from coast to coast to coast since 2007.
We have also launched a comprehensive national action plan to combat human trafficking to ensure the safety and security of women and girls across Canada who are being targeted for sexual exploitation by violent traffickers.
We are moving ahead with Bill S-2, which would give aboriginal women equal rights and access to their matrimonial property rights and, most important, emergency protection orders to protect them in cases of domestic violence.
Ms. Élaine Michaud (Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, before beginning my speech I would like to mention that I will share my time with my colleague, the member for Chambly—Borduas.
I am pleased to rise today to speak on Bill S-2, An Act respecting family homes situated on First Nation reserves and matrimonial interests or rights in or to structures and lands situated on those reserves.
This concerns matrimonial real property, which is the subject of this bill. At least there is some effort to resolve some problems, a certain form of discrimination against women that currently exists on reserves. This is the issue that Bill S-2 seeks to address. “Matrimonial real property” means lands and structures affixed to those lands. In this case, it would apply equally to couples in a conjugal relationship and those living common-law.
As has been mentioned, there is now a certain legal vacuum on reserves concerning matrimonial real property. This legal vacuum exists as a result of the current Constitution and the division of powers it provides for. The provinces and territories are responsible for property rights and civil rights in their respective territory. The federal government is constitutionally responsible for legislation regarding Indians and lands reserved for Indians.
Bill S-2 seeks to grant equal property rights to both spouses in a relationship. Regrettably, unlike what the government continues to say in the House, it is impossible to implement Bill S-2 as it stands. There are several reasons for this, and they have been repeatedly raised by various stakeholders who work either directly in aboriginal communities or closely with them.
Many members stood in the House and bragged about the large number of government consultations that took place before this document was produced. What they forget to mention is that there was no consultation on Bill S-2 specifically, on the most recently introduced version. There were a number of consultations that, in one way or another, broached the topic that we are discussing today—that of matrimonial real property—but aboriginal communities were not directly consulted on the content of the updated version of the bill. Off the top of my head, I believe this is the fourth or fifth version of a flawed bill that the Conservatives have been trying to pass in the House since 2008.
Certain groups and organizations were consulted in the past, and they were called before the committee to study Bill S-2. They raised the same concerns and issues that they had years before. Take a look at the testimony from the Standing Committee on the Status of Women and it becomes clear that the problems previously brought to light were not taken into consideration by the government when it wrote this bill. I am thinking, for example, about testimony from the Assembly of First Nations.
Again today I am giving a speech within the context of another time allocation motion imposed by the government.
A number of people have complained that the government did not listen to them and did not take their opinions into consideration. The government is trying to restrict our ability as members to represent the people who want their views expressed in the House and to try, once again, to amend the bill or at least ensure that it is not passed now, without the necessary consultations.
If the proposed measures in the bill are imposed, we will completely overrule the rights of first nations communities. I feel that is disrespectful.
In addition to the work of the committee and the various stakeholders who have spoken out publicly and who appeared before the committee on this matter, a number of reports drafted over the years raise the same problems that have been raised from the outset, whether it be issues with funding to implement the measures that would be set out in a bill of this nature or issues with a lack of funding to enable aboriginal women to take advantage of any new measures that may be put in place to help them.
All of these issues have already been raised many times. Unfortunately, once again, they cannot be found in the document before us today and on which we will soon have to vote. This government is staying true to the new tradition for which it is so well known and it is doing whatever it can to restrict the right of opposition members to reflect the views of the citizens they represent.
Ever since the beginning of this debate, I have heard a number of members say that it is the opposition parties that are being undemocratic and are trying their best to limit debate. I find this absolutely ridiculous. I do not know if they have had an opportunity to listen to what they are saying or to read their speeches before they give them, but when I hear comments like these, I am appalled. Every day, I am surprised at what we can hear in the House from the party in power. It is just amazing.
Earlier I was talking about the very important problems and issues raised by the Assembly of First Nations. It has determined that three main principles are key to addressing matrimonial interests or rights on reserves.
The first of these three principles is the recognition of first nations jurisdiction. The government did not consult or even ask for their opinion or their support for Bill S-2, which is currently before us, so I find it rather odd to even think that we might be able to recognize their jurisdiction and respect their fundamental rights. In any case, when the government asks for their support or their opinion, it is not taken into consideration at all. I think this is one of the major problems we have with recognizing the first principle identified by the Assembly of First Nations.
The second principle is access to justice, dispute resolution and remedies. Here again, there is a chronic lack of funding for certain communities. I am thinking of the northern communities that are far from major centres, which will now have to appeal to the provincial courts more regularly, without necessarily having the financial resources to get there and exercise their rights.
Finally, the third principle identified is to address underlying issues, such as access to housing and economic security. I am also thinking of access to safe drinking water, another major issue that the House will soon have to deal with and take concrete action to resolve.
Coming back to this principle, we see that on reserves there are still many issues that prevent the full implementation of the measures in Bill S-2. These measures would make it possible to protect women on reserves who are unfortunately experiencing family violence.
Other problems noted by the NDP prevent it from supporting this bill. First, the bill includes a one-year transitional period to allow first nation communities to enact new laws. This one-year period is too short for many communities that want to resolve a number of outstanding issues that are not being addressed here.
Quebec is a prime example of some of the problems this bill will create. According to lawyer David Schulze, Bill S-2 overlooks the specificities of Quebec. Under the Civil Code, common-law partners do not have property rights, but they would under Bill S-2. For example, a first nations member would have rights to his Innu spouse's home on the Uashat reserve, but she would have no rights to his home across the street in Sept-Îles.
Clearly the bill does not exactly resolve the problems of discrimination that the women are experiencing when it comes to matrimonial real property.
We still have a lot of work to do to ensure that their rights are respected. That is why the NDP will continue to oppose Bill S-2, which does nothing tangible to give first nations women the help they really need.
Mr. Matthew Dubé (Chambly—Borduas, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier for sharing her time with me.
I want to begin by saying that I already know what to expect as criticism from the government in terms of our position on the bill. It is easy, because we have often heard it during question period and statements by members. The government accuses us of not giving any consideration to the rights of women on reserves.
I must admit that I think expressing that view is intellectually dishonest. The issue is much more complex than one where everything is either black or white: if you are against the bill, you are against women’s rights, and if you support the bill, you support women’s rights. This is ridiculous, and I think the members of the government are intelligent enough to understand the issue. At least I hope they are. It is a question of rights and legislation. We must therefore recognize the complexity that lies behind our opposition.
I would like to go back to the debate that we had earlier with the minister when the time allocation motion was adopted. I do not even know anymore how many time allocation motions there have been over the past few days, there have been so many. The number of gag orders and time allocation motions has been particularly high.
The minister answered one of my questions, and I heard other Conservative members reiterate the point that this is the third or fourth version of the bill, given the various versions that died on the order paper because of elections and so on.
Even though this is the third or fourth draft, what puzzles me is that the government still has not managed to strike the right note and achieve a result that reflects the consultations that were actually held. There were consultations held in the early 2000s. Things have changed a great deal since then.
A variety of reports have been tabled, and consultations were held in 2003, in 2005 and more recently in 2008. In reality, the situation is constantly changing. I think we should hold consultations on a more regular basis, especially on this bill specifically.
The government is bringing in a bill. However, according to the presentations made by the first nations during the consultations, the bill falls short of its goals. It is therefore rather difficult to see it as the result of the work that was done. The people who were consulted are telling us that it is not.
Of course, this causes huge problems. In addition, it is representative of a failure to listen and a lack of rigour by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, as well as his troubling incompetence in this issue, as in so many others. We are aware of the major problems faced by first nations communities.
I would now like to come back to the issue of complexity. Frankly, I must say that I am offended, just as my colleagues must be, to be told every day, by a government that does absolutely nothing for women that we are opposed to women’s rights just because we are opposed to the bill. I have to say it, especially in this very complicated context.
We in the NDP are very proud of the record number of women sitting in the House. Our caucus is made up of women who are very dynamic and very aware of the issues. Ever since I have been involved with this party, I have had the pleasure of learning a great deal about these issues.
The idea is that the bill proposes changes that will fill the legal void in the area of matrimonial rights. We need only look at the provincial civil codes and the federal government's responsibility to the first nations to appreciate this void.
For example, an aboriginal couple who are going through a divorce will not be able to properly deal with the situation or manage it from a legal standpoint. By introducing this bill, the government is making it look like it is doing something to address the problem but, at the end of the day, the bill is nothing but a talking point for press conferences, and does almost nothing concrete to help women in difficulty.
To begin with, there is no funding attached to the changes proposed in the bill, despite the fact that funding would give these people access to the legal resources they need to benefit from the changes proposed in the bill.
If the court is located too far from a reserve, it creates an additional financial burden. People who are unable to get assistance from a lawyer, or some form of legal aid, will need money to make the trip. They will need access to resources, and the bill does nothing in that regard. That is the first problem.
The other problem, which was raised on a number of occasions, pertains to determining the symptoms of the problem. In theory, the bill changes the act. However, in addition to the lack of resources, combatting violence against women is outside intended scope of the bill.
First nations communities are experiencing poverty and shameful third world conditions. Obviously, we need to start somewhere, which is probably the intent of this bill. However, since it does nothing to achieve concrete results, provide adequate resources, or address related problems, it is difficult for us to support it.
We must not forget that the communities themselves appeared before the committee and made this observation. The Native Women's Association of Canada stressed that the problems I just listed are not going to go away and that, in certain cases, they may get worse. This bill is a way for the government to say that it has addressed the problem and that it has taken action. The government will, in all likelihood, use the bill as a pretext for taking no further action when, in fact, we know full well that there is still a great deal of work to be done, work that this government, unfortunately, does not seem prepared to do.
I would like to address another issue that I have already raised a number of times today in the House. It concerns the lack of resources and what the bill claims, in theory, to do. A number of aboriginal communities in Quebec have an important place in the Quebec nation. We are trying to work with them, and maintain a good relationship with them.
However, the Quebec Civil Code is very different from the common law system used in the other provinces. Lawyers testified in committee, and elsewhere, that the bill does not take this difference into account. In the provinces, especially in Quebec where the differences are substantial, procedures and rules already exist. The bill is a way of imposing the Conservative government's vision, and it does not take into consideration all of the issues I have mentioned. This creates a multitude of problems, and is a demonstration of bad faith.
I would like to conclude on this point. I talked about the minister's incompetence in this file. This is a common problem with this government, which has very fractious relationships with the provinces. Indeed, the Prime Minister never meets with the provincial premiers to talk about such issues as the economy.
However, this government has adopted the same attitude in its dealings with first nations. It does little things here and there so it can boast about it in front of the cameras, yet, according to testimony and what we see on the ground, these measures actually lead to very few concrete changes. My colleagues whose ridings include reserves are in a better position to testify to this than I am.
The government then has the nerve to show contempt for the people who organize to protest this paternalistic attitude. Take for example the minister's recent comments, which I will not repeat because of his unparliamentary language. His general approach and the way he treated some of my colleagues on the committee, including the member for Churchill, when discussing this issue show a certain contempt that does nothing to encourage good relations with communities that have gone through very difficult situations. The government should be bending over backwards to work better with them, but instead it is content to engage in public relations.
This is really unfortunate. There are too many problems in this bill for us to support it. We want to see more tangible, meaningful action. The government must recognize that this issue is much more complex. We want the Conservatives to stop insulting us by saying that we do not respect women's rights. This is utterly false.
This is why we oppose this bill.
Hon. Leona Aglukkaq (Minister of Health, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Mississauga South.
As an aboriginal woman, I am pleased to have the opportunity today to speak about the importance of Bill S-2, the family homes on reserves and matrimonial interests or rights act.
The basic principle behind the legislation is very simple. It is about the equality of non-aboriginal people and aboriginal people when it comes to matrimonial rights. It is about access to the same basic legal protection for those living on and off reserve. Everywhere else in Canada there is a legal protection when a marriage or common law relationship breaks down or a spouse or a common law partner dies, except on reserves. Provincial legislation ensures that matrimonial real property assets are distributed equitably, for instance, and that children and spouses are protected, but there are no similar family laws to speak of in first nation communities.
Aboriginal women have been waiting for this legislation for a long time. It is simply appalling that this legislative gap still exists in Canada in 2013. They deserve to have the same rights as non-aboriginal people in Canada. Our government believes that Canadians should not be denied access to basic rights and protection simply because of where they live.
That is why our government is responding to the call of aboriginal women. Parliamentary committees, international bodies, even the Manitoba NDP, have called for urgent action to finally eliminate the long-standing legislative gaps that have caused much pain and indignity. As hon. members of the House must recognize, Bill S-2 does not simply speak to the principles of fairness, equality and respect. It will also have a direct and positive impact on people's day-to-day lives during a family crisis.
Bill S-2 would protect the right of married or common law couples living on reserve in the event of the breakup of their relationship or a death. It would provide an equitable division of matrimonial real property assets, and in the case of violent and abusive relationships, it would protect the spouse and children by authorizing the court to grant an individual spouse exclusive occupation of the family home. Until an appropriate matrimonial rights and interests law is in place, spouses or common law partners living on most reserves in Canada will have no legal protection and rights in the event of separation, a divorce, death or domestic violence.
In our great country, it is outrageous that there are still individuals, mostly women, who do not have the legal means to defend themselves in situations of spousal violence and who have limited rights when it comes to protecting their matrimonial real property and interests in the event of a marital breakdown.
As parliamentarians, we cannot and must not allow this state of affairs to continue any longer. Now is the time to act, because innocent women and children have suffered long enough and because we do not want this legislative gap to claim any more victims. Every day that goes by leaves thousands of aboriginal men, women and children across our country vulnerable and without the same protection as anyone else in the House takes for granted.
More than 25 years have passed since the 1986 landmark ruling in two cases: Paul v. Paul and Derrickson v. Derrickson. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that provincial family law cannot be applied to homes and real estate on reserves. It is shameful that the opposition does not share this same sense of urgency in supporting legislation that would give these same rights and protections to aboriginal women and children who might otherwise be left homeless and poverty-stricken.
Consider that in a first nations community, when a marriage or a common-law relationship breaks down and an individual, usually a woman who is often accompanied by children, is forced from the home, she has no legal recourse. If the house is sold and the spouse retains all the proceeds, no court can help her.
Jennifer Courchene, a first nations woman, is one of those women who have suffered as a result of this legislative gap. She was evicted, with her children, from the family home by her husband. She told the standing committee on status of women that a judge wanted to help but his hands were tied. She lost the family home. Jennifer and her children needed, and rightly deserved, legal protection similar to what the law affords women who live off reserve.
Bill S-2 is designed to ensure that Canadians who live on reserve have similar matrimonial rights and protections to those who live off reserve. It would promote the safety of children and caregivers who experience family violence. It would give these women the same legal tools that help other Canadian women prevent and combat abuse and violence from spouses or common-law partners. Along with matrimonial real property rights, the bill would ensure continued access to the family home for women and their children after a marital breakup. Legal instruments, such as emergency protection orders and exclusive occupation orders, would also be available.
Parliament has spent ample time reviewing, amending and debating Bill S-2 and its previous legislation. The time for study and delay has passed. Now is the time to act.
The fact is that no one disputes the need for this legislation or criticizes the bill for what it does, which is finally filling a legislative gap that has existed for more than 25 years. It would provide individuals living on reserves with the same basic rights and protections as all other Canadians, yet instead of getting behind this bill, the opposition continues to oppose equality for all Canadian women, whether they be aboriginal or non-aboriginal. It continues to oppose the bill.
I would respectfully urge the members opposite to recognize the urgency of this situation, and to vote in support of this bill and for extending basic equal rights to thousands and thousands of aboriginal women, men and children.
Mrs. Stella Ambler (Mississauga South, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege today to speak in support of Bill S-2, the family homes on reserves and matrimonial interests or rights act.
The legislation before us has been crafted to meet the specific challenges presented by the fact that over two decades ago the Supreme Court ruled that provincial or territorial matrimonial real property does not apply to first nations reserve lands.
I feel particularly proud as a member of both the parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. That is the committee that was fortunate enough to hear about this bill in detail and to hear from some of the victims and those people who supported the bill. We also heard from those in opposition to the bill. I want to address some of those comments, which I am hearing today from the opposition as well.
I find it shameful that there are people in this House who would not vote for this bill. It addresses a long-standing legislative gap with regard to matrimonial property rights. As the Minister of Health just stated, this is long overdue.
I want to talk about a mechanism in the bill that would provide for courts of law to apply matrimonial real property laws on reserve where there are none.
Specifically, I want to talk about the fact that first nations could develop their own laws if they so wish. They could do that while meeting the specific needs of their communities. First nations could determine the content themselves with the help of their councils and leadership. What they would need to do is earn the majority support among eligible members in a public vote. This process is public and out in the open. That is a very important provision in the bill.
Another important provision is the 12-month transition period that was added in direct response to a request from first nations to have it built in. We know that many first nations are quite advanced in developing their own laws, so this allows them a 12-month period to do so before the provisional federal rules would take place. If that is the case, 12 months after Bill S-2 comes into force, the provisional federal rules would come into effect so that those communities that had yet to enact a law of their own under Bill S-2 or some other legislation such as the First Nations Land Management Act would also have a law on this subject. All first nations citizens would have access to the same protections and rights as I and other Canadians have, regardless of where they live in Canada. This is the right thing for us to do.
It is important to recognize that Bill S-2 would not require first nations to enact laws that are identical to the federal rules. To do so would essentially defeat much of the collaborative work that has gone into the proposed legislation, which is years of analysis, consultation and engagement.
Through these collaborative efforts, a clear consensus emerged that first nations must be able to develop their own laws on the issue if they so wish. It is impossible to overestimate the value of this provision. First nations could enact laws tailored to their needs and cultural traditions. As an example of how a first nation could personalize the law, it could grant a role to a council of elders to resolve disputes.
In the case where a first nation does not pass its own laws related to matrimonial real property, the bill would provide for the application of provisional federal rules. That would be fine too. First and foremost, these federal rules are designed to protect individuals who have far too often been victimized by the lack of relevant law, particularly women and children. The federal rules would provide spouses or common-law partners with an equal entitlement to occupy the family home. Should the relationship end, each spouse or partner would be entitled to equal shares of the value of all matrimonial interests and rights, including the family home.The rules would also ensure that the family home could not be sold or remortgaged without the consent of both spouses or partners.
These provisions would prevent a scenario that has become all too common in recent years: one partner or spouse sells the family home and keeps the proceeds, leaving the other partner or spouse impoverished and homeless.
We heard this situation time and again in the status of women committee. It was heartbreaking to hear these women. Their lives will never be the same. Some of them are still paying their fair share of this family home that they have been thrown out of by their former partners. It is shocking. It really is.
I want to talk about two other provisions in the bill that would do much to protect family members when there is violence as well.
The first involves emergency protection orders. We have heard the Minister for Status of Women talk about these provisions often, because she knows how effective they would be in dealing with this issue. Specifically, the order would be issued by a court and would be enforceable by police or peace officers. It would exclude a spouse or common-law partner from the family home for up to 90 days, with the possibility of an extension if necessary. The orders would be made in urgent situations when violence has occurred or is imminent.
A second and similar instrument would be the exclusive occupation order, also in the bill. This would again be fully a enforceable court order that excludes a spouse or partner from the family home for a specified term.
In both cases, the excluded spouse or common-law partner would be able to contest the order in court.
Also, the federal rules proposed in Bill S-2 would address the often difficult issue of who can occupy the family home after a spouse or common-law partner passes away. As unfair as it seems, there have been cases in which a widower has been forced out of the home upon the death of his wife. Therefore, under this proposed federal regime, the surviving spouse or common-law partner could remain in the home for at least 180 days.
The government believes that what has been proposed would also balance individual rights and interests with collective rights of first nations. Bill S-2 stipulates that a first nation would have the right to make representation to the court on its collective rights on its reserve land as well as on any relevant cultural, social or legal matters not relevant to a case heard under the federal rules. This provision would not apply, however, in cases involving emergency or confidentiality orders, which I believe is entirely appropriate, given that emergency orders can sometimes involve life-threatening situations.
I believe that there is built into this bill respect for the collective rights of first nations. For example, non-members would not be allowed to acquire permanent interests in reserve land, nor would they be able to benefit from the value or appreciation of that land.
There would be one exception, which is that if a non-member has contributed to the improvement of the land that he or she held together with a former spouse, that person may be entitled to some compensation. That entitlement would apply only to improvements, not to the original value of the land.
Finally, this is the fourth version of a bill that has come before Parliament on this issue. Bill S-2 includes amendments, making the previous bills even better, and of course extensive consultation took place.
I echo the words of the Minister of Health when I say that it is time to stop debating this issue and time to take action. It is time to pass this bill.
The legislative gap has hurt families and entire communities, and there have been individuals on first nations for more than 25 years without the same rights that I and other members enjoy. Let us stop the pain and suffering caused by this legislative gap. This pain and suffering can often lead to homelessness and poverty. Again, this measure is long overdue. I urge my colleagues on all sides of the House to join me in supporting this legislation, Bill S-2.
Mr. Pierre-Luc Dusseault (Sherbrooke, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would first of all like to say that I will be sharing my time with the brilliant, the incomparable and the irreplaceable member for Nickel Belt. He will have half of my speaking time.
Bill S-2 comes from the Senate, hence the “S” before the bill number. This means that the process was started in the Senate. I will not be spending too much time talking about the Senate and whether or not it has a role to play here. I think everybody already knows the NDP's position on this issue.
I think that it is the elected officials in the House of Commons who should put forward bills as often as possible. This bill has already appeared in other forms in previous Parliaments. The Senate took it up again, probably at the request of the government, for reasons that I have not yet figured out. In my view, it is the right of elected officials to introduce bills.
Unfortunately, there is an additional process. We always have to send our bills to the Senate, which spends thousands—if not millions—of dollars to do just about the same job as we do here, that is, to study bills.
Frequently, the other chamber hears the same witnesses and conducts the same studies as we do. I will not elaborate much on this, because I know it is not the point today. However, I would simply like to point out that every time we consider a bill that starts with the letter “S”, it means that it was introduced in the Senate.
As I was saying earlier, this is the fourth version of a piece of legislation that the Conservatives have been trying to get through Parliament since 2008. The NDP has opposed each one of these bills when they have come up for debate. This is nothing new.
The Conservatives are showing their ideological blindness. They seem to hide behind their ideology and they do not seem to understand common sense, the truth or the arguments that we put forward. They seem to be caught in their own ideology and cannot get out of it, unfortunately, even though we try to make them see reason with our speeches.
Today, the point of my speech is to show the government the many flaws in the bill and help the government understand why parliamentarians should not vote in favour of the bill in its current form.
A number of people have already spoken about the bill, primarily in committee or here in the House of Commons. As I said earlier, these are essentially the same people who go to the Senate to present their point of view.
Opinion on the bill is far from unanimous. It seems that the objective of the bill is a good and laudable one. All members in the House are in favour of equal rights for women, whether they live on reserves or elsewhere. No one opposes that laudable objective. However, since the present bill is flawed, it will improve the situation only slightly, if at all. That is why a number of people, a number of experts who live in these aboriginal communities every day, made presentations and came out against the bill.
When the government wants to propose legislation and make decisions, it absolutely has to initiate negotiations or hold consultations. The government did hold a few consultations regarding earlier bills, but unfortunately, no consultations were held regarding Bill S-2, which we are discussing today, although it is very similar to the earlier bills.
In spite of all the consultations, it seems that the testimony of the people who expressed their views has not been taken into consideration. In committee, they said the bill had problems and they therefore could not support it. I will come back to the more specific positions taken by certain witnesses later.
Another somewhat more technical thing caught my attention. In this version, the bill concerning first nations matrimonial real property has a lower ratification threshold. In the previous bills that tried to do the same thing as Bill S-2, a majority of band members had to vote for the law, that is, 50% plus one. In the present version, Bill S-2, the law must be approved by a simple majority of those who voted, with a participation rate of at least 25% of eligible voters. This is a slight change and is relatively difficult to find, but it is rather important. The ratification threshold has been lowered from 50% to 25%. That is really quite surprising. Is it because the Conservatives are afraid of the results? Are they afraid of what the first nations will be deciding in their own democratic bodies? I offer that as a possibility.
There are other reasons why the NDP opposes this bill. In fact, all of the leading first nations organizations, whose members will be affected by this bill, do not support it because they do not think it will succeed in protecting women against violence. It also infringes on the inherent rights of female first nations members. I am not the one saying that; first nations organizations are saying it.
Those organizations oppose this bill for several reasons. We could mention the lack of financial resources to help first nations governments implement the law or the lack of funding for lawyers or to take into account limited access to provincial courts, for geographic reasons. That is an important point, because aboriginal communities are often in remote areas and what the bill is trying to do is not as simple as the government might think. Sometimes, it seems to be a simplistic solution to a much more complex problem, particularly for aboriginal communities in very remote areas.
We could also talk about the lack of housing on the reserves and the lack of the land that would be needed to provide both spouses with separate houses on the reserves. We could talk about the lack of capacity to implement the law, particularly in remote areas, as I was saying. We can also see the lack of provincial courts that are capable of managing the complexity of the reserves’ land codes and the lack of funding to help women who have to buy their shares back from their partners when they are given access to the house. There is also the lack of resources for alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and the lack of extra housing on the reserves.
I have listed several reasons why first nations organizations have criticized Bill S-2. They are also reasons why we, as a party and as the official opposition in the House of Commons, have to oppose this bill.
Once again, the Conservatives are taking a paternalistic, confrontational approach to impose their legislative agenda. That is why the NDP will not support any bill concerning matrimonial real property unless it is accompanied by non-legislative measures to solve these serious problems. What needs to be done includes providing speedy access to remedies; ending violence against aboriginal women by developing a national action plan; managing the housing crisis on reserves and funding shelters for women; providing better access to justice, including increased funding for legal aid; increasing financial resources to help first nations governments enforce the law; and providing better access to alternative dispute resolution methods.
These are all reasons why we cannot support this bill. Legislation alone is not what is needed; measures that go beyond legislation, meaningful measures to help all first nations with their everyday reality, are also called for.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and the national aboriginal women’s summit are all organizations that have very strongly criticized the bill brought in by this Conservative government, which is congratulating itself today on listening to the first nations when we can clearly see that the responses show the opposite to be true.
Mr. Claude Gravelle (Nickel Belt, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak to Bill S-2, an act respecting family homes situated on First Nation reserves and matrimonial interests or rights in or to structures and lands situated on those reserves.
My party is opposed to Bill S-2, now at third reading stage. I will give context to the bill, my debate and my contribution.
There are four first nations communities in my riding.
The first one, Nipissing First Nation, is situated between Sturgeon Falls and North Bay along Highway 17 east, and the chief is Marianna Couchie. I specifically will be quoting Chief Couchie later on in my speech because she is the only female chief in my riding. Members will find what she has to say about Bill S-2 very interesting.
The Nipissing First Nation is a good and very modern reserve. There are a lot of small businesses and some very nice land situated along Lake Nipissing. It is a very progressive first nation.
Another first nation community is the Wahnapitae First Nation, and the chief is Ted Roque. It is situated along Lake Wahnapitae in the riding of Nickel Belt. It works very closely with the mining companies on its land or close to it. It does the water monitoring for the mining companies. The first nation hires some of its own people to do the work, to monitor the water in its reserve or close to it.
The third first nation community in my riding is the Whitefish Lake First Nation, located in Naughton, on Highway 17 west. The chief of that first nation is Steve Miller. Again, it is a very progressive first nation. It is building homes, a subdivision, with the help of Mike Holmes, the famous builder we see on television regularly building energy-efficient homes.
The last first nation community in my riding is the Mattagami First Nation and it is situated on Highway 144 west, next to Gogama. Its chief is Walter Naveau. The Mattagami First Nation is also very progressive and it has an agreement with a mining company, IAMGOLD, which is developing an open pit on its traditional land. The first nation has signed an agreement with this company, which is probably one of the best agreements signed with first nations and a mining company. The Mattagami First Nation will be helping with the development of this open pit.
With respect to this legislation, I will read what Chief Couchie from Nipissing First Nation had to say. She emailed me some information about matrimonial homes last night. She said:
|| There are some certainties that NFN would like to ensure. We already have our own Matrimonial Rights Property policy in place, that occured quite a few years ago around 2004. (I am concerned about) Will this new Bill have an impact on our Existing MRP Policy?
|| When we enacted our MRP two matters were of precedent.
|| 1. The safe guarding of the right to preserve for ever our Land.
|| 2. In our Policy/Act the children if they have status own the family home and which ever parent is prepared to raise the children in the family home can do so.
That means that if the mother is a non-native and the father is native, the mother, if she so wishes, can raise the kids in the family home. Chief Couchie continued:
|| Implicit in the 2nd matter is that if this is a marriage of a Status man and a non Status women. It the non-Status women is going to raise the child or children then she has the right to live in the matrimony home. This woman can never gain control of the land of the house, both have to be transferred in the name of the child or children).
Chief Couchie concluded:
|| I do, and others at the Nation, worry that the Bill is just another tactic to take our land; our Homeland!
|| This current government is trying in every way it can to under mine our Treaty and Inherent Rights.
|| The Conservative government still views First Nation peoples as “a problem”.
|| The Fundamental question is when will the government stop undermining our Rights and start to recognize that we have rights enshrined in Laws and Treaties. They should just change their plans and leave our lands and Rights alone.
|| It would be even better if the government entered in to a truly respectful dialogue.
With respect to this legislation and how the Conservative government treats first nations, I have said it before and I will say it again. We, as a country, need to get this relationship right. Until we do, we cannot move forward in any meaningful way as a country. The Conservative government's failure to consult and to recognize treaties and rights continues to be the stumbling block to progress.
As important as apologies are for wrong past behaviour, there is no real walking the walk with the Conservative government on these matters. Despite several good reports, consultations and previous legislation, the government fails to listen here.
The federal Conservatives went to the trouble of consulting with first nations and the Native Women's Association of Canada on matrimonial real property, but ignored the results of the consultation when preparing the original legislation. While this iteration of the bill removes some of the most onerous parts of previous legislation attempts, it still refuses to recognize first nations' inherent rights and jurisdiction in this matter.
The opposition to this legislation should give the government pause to consider moving forward. There is opposition from the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations. There is opposition from many nations across the country.
Listen to Ms. Jennifer Courchene, in testimony to Parliament on April 30, 2013:
|| I'm not sure about the politics of this legislation, this bill. I just know that there should be something in place to help. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has gone through this in a first nation community. There are probably many, many other women who have gone through what I've gone through, and the story is pretty much the same: the woman loses the home. I'm not sure how other first nations communities are run, but if there had been something to help us, we would have taken it, rather than be homeless, that's for sure.
This legislation and the recent budget would not provide any of the necessary resources to take care of the fundamental problem. Bill S-2 is the fourth version of similar legislation that the Conservatives have tried to pass since 2008. The NDP has opposed these every time they came up for debate.
There are fundamental principles that need to be adhered to in addressing matrimonial rights and interests on reserve. Unfortunately, I will not have time to name all of these concerns from the Assembly of First Nations, Mr. Speaker, because you have given me the one minute signal, so I would be happy to answer any questions.
Ms. Candice Bergen (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time today with the member for Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar.
I want to take a few minutes as I begin to speak on Bill S-2, the bill that would give real matrimonial property rights to aboriginal women and men living on reserves, and talk a little about why this bill is so important to me personally.
I get very emotional whenever I stand to speak about this. I feel very passionate about it. My granddaughter, Arcaydia Faith, is a baby girl of just over a year old, and she is of aboriginal descent. My son's girlfriend, a beautiful young aboriginal woman named Tamara, is a status Indian. When I look at my granddaughter, Arcaydia, and I look at her beautiful mother, Tamara, who together with my son are trying to build their lives, and I realize that my granddaughter and her mother do not have the same rights as I do as a Canadian woman just because they are born as status Indian women, it saddens and troubles me, and it literally breaks my heart.
It breaks my heart not just for these two aboriginal women who are part of my family but, more importantly, for the tens of thousands of aboriginal women and, frankly, men who are victimized over and over again because of who they are and because of their Canadian status.
When I speak about this issue and when I hear the opposition say it is not aboriginal women talking about aboriginal rights, as Canadians we do not accept that argument anymore. We are here, standing up for those who nobody else will stand up for.
On this side of the House we are standing up for them, and as a grandmother and as a mother, I am standing up for my aboriginal granddaughter and her mother. I am very proud to do so. I will do it for as long as I can, until we see the same rights that are afforded to every other Canadian afforded to aboriginal people.
As well, I want to say this does trouble me. I have a lot of respect for many of the opposition members who I believe are here for very solid and good reasons, but it does sadden me deeply when they oppose this legislation. I think if they looked at themselves in the mirror, they would know they do not have any good reason to oppose it.
I will also say I am very disappointed there has not been more coverage of this issue in the media. I do panels, almost on a weekly basis. I do news panels on the RCMP. I do news panels on prisoners and all kinds of very interesting topics. Why are we not doing panels and why are we not talking about Bill S-2 and the rights of aboriginal women?
We should be talking about this day and night for the next several weeks. We should have been talking about this. I am troubled. I think it begs the question that maybe we all have to look in the mirror. Why is it that aboriginal women in this country deserve to be virtually ignored not only by the media but sadly also by the opposition who I believe are here for the right reasons?
I challenge the opposition members to stand up and have the courage to maybe vote against their leader, maybe vote against their party, and do the right thing and support aboriginal women and the rights of aboriginal women on reserve.
I do want to take few moments to talk about what our government has done in terms of consultation. I think it is important that we look at the statistics on what aboriginal women face.
Approximately 15% of aboriginal women in 2009, in a marriage or with a common-law partner, reported that they had experienced spousal violence in the 5 previous years. This is a very serious and relevant issue. Of those who had been victimized, 58% reported that they had sustained an injury, compared to 41% of non-aboriginal women. Further, 48% reported that they had been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a weapon, and 52% of aboriginal women reported they felt threatened and feared for their lives.
Bill S-2 is designed to address this very real need in first nations communities for fair matrimonial rights and interests. It proposes not only to protect today's victims but also to prevent similar injustices from occurring in the future.
Bill S-2 and its implementation plan have been meticulously developed to take into account the realities of life on first nations reserves. For example, due to the remoteness of many first nations communities, the regulations under this legislation would enable an individual to secure an emergency protection order by telephone, email or fax.
Right now they could be crying for help, they could be phoning, and there is no protection order for them. Not only would this bill bring in the ability for a protection order, but it could actually be acquired by telephone, email or fax for emergency protection. Bill S-2 would also authorize a peace officer or other appropriate person to apply on behalf of a spouse or common-law partner, again providing that support that is so needed in times of crisis.
In addition, the government plans to support the implementation of the legislation through education and training. Front-line police officers would be given tools, policies and training to effectively enforce relevant laws governing matrimonial property rights. Education material and opportunities are also planned for provincial and territorial superior court judges. This would provide judges with a clear understanding of relevant on-reserve social issues, along with Bill S-2 and first nation laws.
There is a two-part phased-in approach proposed for the implementation of Bill S-2. The first part would allow courts to apply first nations' laws. This is very important and something that we recognize. The second part is a provisional federal regime that would apply to those communities that have yet to develop laws related to matrimonial rights and interests. The federal regime would not take effect until 12 months after Bill S-2 becomes law. The end result, however, would be that laws that protect the matrimonial rights and interests of all Canadians, aboriginal or non-aboriginal, regardless of where they live, would occur.
Some first nations currently deal with family violence issues by bringing an independent third party into the household to help resolve disputes, and their laws would continue this process. First nations would be free to create laws that align with their traditions and cultures. Laws developed under the mechanism proposed in Bill S-2 must satisfy only a few criteria. They must be endorsed by a majority of members in a free and open referendum, and they must respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
I do not think anyone could argue that aboriginal people should not have the same rights that we enjoy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or under the Canadian Human Rights Act. To suggest the opposite, some would say is not only unfair but extremely discriminatory.
To support this empowering and culturally sensitive approach, our government would fund the creation of a centre of excellence for matrimonial real property. With the centre of excellence, first nation communities would have support and resources as they draft their own regimes. During its life cycle the centre of excellence would become an important resource to synthesize important tools, communications and research activities, and assist first nation communities and organizations in the development and application of the new legislation.
In addition to its critical role as a central resource, the centre of excellence would be supported by an advisory committee comprised of key stakeholders, such as the Government of Canada, aboriginal organizations, non-governmental organizations and centre of excellence staff. The committee would provide non-binding guidance on the direction of the centre in such areas as research and implementation related activities.
By endorsing Bill S-2 we could close this deplorable legislative gap and start the real and necessary work required to prevent the gap from claiming new victims, while putting an end to the pain and suffering that countless children and women are currently experiencing. It is time that all Canadians, regardless of where they happen to live, have access to a process to help them receive protection from domestic violence and abuse.
Clearly, Bill S-2 would provide first nations women with rights and protections in situations of domestic abuse. It is an essential part of any effective solution of violence against women and children. We talk about that so much in the House, whether it is murdered or missing aboriginal women, or violence against women and young girls in other parts of Canada. This is a very direct thing that we can do to help women on reserve.
I hear words like “we need to consult” and “culturally appropriate” and “treaty rights”. All of those things are extremely important, but imagine a young aboriginal woman having someone look her in the eye and say, “You don't have the same rights as every other Canadian because of who you are, because of your ethnicity, because you were born a status Indian and in Canada we are not going to protect that”.
That is what the opposition is saying. I ask them to reconsider and to pass this. We are going to do everything we can to pass the bill. I think we have the votes to do it, but more importantly, what a wonderful strong message it would send to aboriginal women if the opposition stood together with us and as one Parliament of Canada we support it and say, “Aboriginal women, we are here for you. We will not turn our backs on you, no matter what opposition we have”. I ask the opposition to do that.