OTTAWA – A controversial bill meant to protect matrimonial rights on reserves has passed despite opposition from critics who say it reflects what they call Ottawa’s paternalistic approach to First Nations issues.
The Conservative bill passed third reading in the House of Commons today and has already been approved by the Senate, meaning it only needs royal assent to become law.
The legislation aims to allow spouses living both on and off reserves the same rights to claim a share of the family’s assets in the event of a marriage breakdown.
It stems from a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that said provincial laws on matrimonial rights did not apply to reserves, which are under federal jurisdiction.
But the federal Indian Act doesn’t address matrimonial real property rights.
The bill allows First Nations to set up their own legal regimes to determine a spouse’s rights to the family home, and also give victimized spouses access to protections and immediate emergency services.
Critics say the government was too paternalistic in designing the legislation, while the government has accused opposition parties of delaying crucial protections for aboriginal women.
“This new law will also save lives — by giving aboriginal women access to emergency protection orders in violent situations,” Rona Ambrose, the minister for the status of women, said in a statement Tuesday.
The NDP and some First Nations leaders say they are concerned about the ability of reserves to actively and thoroughly implement the new regime.
They also say the legislation misses the point about victimization of women on reserves, which they argue is more related to poverty, high crime rates and crowded housing than it is to property rights.
“When we are talking about the issue of violence against aboriginal women, it is serious and it demands far more than a slap-in-the-face piece of paternalistic legislation,” NDP MP Niki Ashton said in the House of Commons.
Versions of the matrimonial real property bill have provoked tempers on all sides of the House since 2008.