Opinion Editorial – Native Women’s Association of Canada’s position on Matrimonial Real Property
Ottawa, ON (April 26, 2007) – It is time to set the record straight on the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s position on Matrimonial Real Property. I am frustrated when the media are blindly led to write clearly biased reports without getting all of the facts. That is especially true with the Regina Leader Post report, “Proposed changes would boost women’s property rights.” (Memory McLeod April 24, 2007)
The Gratia Bunnie story is one of many cases we have read about regarding Aboriginal women who are being threatened by eviction from their matrimonial home. I have heard of too many stories (by the Aboriginal women who we heard from during the three months of discussions with them on the Matrimonial Real Property issues) of violent relationships and the abuse of power of elected Indian Act Chiefs and Councils. I know that this is not occurring in all First Nations communities, but the women we have heard from addressed these issues as a priority – loud and clear. I heard too many stories of Aboriginal women who, with their children, are forced to leave their marital home and to try to find a safe place for the family to live. Along with these facts and the facts about the brutal violence against Aboriginal women who were once missing and then found murdered, I am disgusted about the basic of all human rights are being violated, the rights to life and the rights to safety.I am also appalled with the total indifference of society in not knowing the history of colonization and not knowing or ignoring the detrimental impacts that the historic genocidal and current assimilation policies of government have had in our communities. The effects of colonization and the unilateral enforcement of the Indian Act have had serious negative impacts upon Aboriginal women and children. These are the impacts that NWAC is trying to address today and has been for the last 33 years.
The issue today is about land rights and the connections that we have as Aboriginal peoples to our lands and territories, which are very sacred and historical. Aboriginal peoples have been living on their traditional territories since time immemorial. Due to the impact of colonization, First Nations women’s relationship to the land has been severely impacted. One of the impacts is the issue of matrimonial property on reserve. The problem was not created by Aboriginal peoples. The issue of matrimonial real property on reserve is now a complex one to resolve; however, it should not be.
When couples who are separating or divorcing and do agree on how to deal with their matrimonial real property, they do not have a comprehensive legal framework within which they can give effect to their intentions. Where couples do not agree, there is no mechanism for resolving their disputes. Many of these couples are attending provincial courts to obtain court orders for an equal division of their assets and find out that the courts will not and can not address the situation of the property on reserve because of jurisdictional squabbling. That’s the issue that NWAC is trying to find solutions to – the fact that many women and their children are suffering because it is the women and children who are forced out of their family homes. It is the women and children who are the most affected because of the housing crises on reserve. It is the women and children who have to try to find places to stay, whether it’s with their own families, in shelters (of which there are only 36 shelters on reserve!) or have to move to an urban centre – mostly with no financial resources. This is where the cycle again occurs because most of these women live in poverty and end up in the most poverty-stricken areas of urban centres causing even more risk to their families.
Beginning in October 2006, NWAC heard ideas, opinions and solutions from Aboriginal women who have been directly impacted by the lack of legal recourse to the equal division of their matrimonial home on reserve. I was encouraged to hear the resilience of the women who were brave enough to come forward and speak. Despite all that they had been through, they moved on, learned from the situation and became stronger for it. I was proud of them to take the risk and to speak about their very personal situations and to provide concrete solutions. The solutions encompass judicial and legal changes, which may be rooted in Indigenous traditional teachings and processes as well as social and economic well being. Six broad themes emerged and NWAC sorted them into short, medium and long term solutions: intergenerational impacts of colonization; violence; justice; accessibility of supports; communication and education; and legislative change.
Contrary to the Leader Post reports on this issue, NWAC does not support the application of provincial law on reserve. It does support; however, that interim measures must be put into place to address the continued human rights violations occurring to Aboriginal women and their children today. Human rights violations occur on a daily basis, especially for Aboriginal children and women who are often victims of physical and sexual abuse, sexualized and racialized violence, blatant systemic discrimination, emotional stress, poverty, suicide and murder. You don’t have to look very far to see the stories such as the “time bomb” being reported at the Northern Ontario reserve at Kashechewan where 21 young people aged 9 to 23 attempted suicide in one month alone (Kate Harries article Globe and Mail Feb. 6/07). Additionally, remember the rising number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women on Canadian streets. While appropriate MRP solutions (whether legislative or non-legislative) are in place, NWAC is asking for a moratorium on evictions on reserve as a first protective step.
On April 20th, the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Jim Prentice released the INAC Ministerial Representative, Wendy Grant John’s 500 page MRP Report with no comments coming from him whether he supports her report or not. NWAC totally supports her report and specifically, supports the fact that First Nations have a continued inherent right to their lands and territories. The Aboriginal women we consulted with reiterated this as well. The women themselves stated that they come from these communities and want to address these issues within their own communities. The women who provided solutions in this process are daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers and granddaughters. They want the intergenerational cycle of abuse and marginalization to end. They want this to be a collective effort to bring the required change in their communities – through the creation of a responsive and comprehensive MRP process, they want to heal and come together to reclaim their way of being now more than ever.
Aboriginal leaders must remain united especially if we are to support our most vulnerable. Divisiveness makes us weak; erodes our relationships and hurts our people. It’s time for serious action to stop this cycle of homelessness, poverty and violence.
Beverley Jacobs, LL.B., LLM.
Native Women’s Association of Canada
1292 Wellington St. W.
Ottawa, ON K1Y 3A9