By Frank Larue
The divorce laws in place in all provinces of Canada do not apply to women on reserves. Incidents of abuse and separation are dealt with by the band council, which often has little female representation. Bill S-4 would not allow Native women to lose their houses in a divorce case, which opens the door to internal friction within the band council. The bill has yet to be approved by the House of Commons but was approved by the Senate at the beginning of July. On the surface, it has the appearance of a law that is long overdue, yet First Nations leaders have not been receptive to its implementation—mainly because they were not consulted and as a result consider the bill inadequate.
Liberal Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas has reservations about the bill and has gone public with her objections. “I was that woman that was beaten and kicked out of my house with small children because I did not have resources or housing. I was forced to go back, only to have it happen time and time again. My own mother went through the same abuse, as did my daughter,” she said. “There are thousands of stories that tell of experiences of abuse. I cannot believe honorable senators would pass Bill S-4 without proper consultation with the very people it will impact, without knowing what it is like to feel helpless and without the proper resources.”
Considering her history, it is difficult to understand why Nichols would not endorse the bill. Leader of the senate, Conservative senator Marjory LeBreton, said she was “amazed” and “ mystified” by Sandra Lovelace Nicholas being opposed to the bill. “I think we’ve talked long enough about it. It’s time to take action,” said LeBreton. “There was a very strong lobby in the Aboriginal community, who perhaps likes things the way they are right now. That’s the only conclusion I can draw. That the chiefs are pretty powerful, pretty strong, and they’re mostly male.”
Bill S-4 would set up federal rules granting reserve residents access to the judicial system that would decide ownership when a Native woman wanted some form of protection from an abusive husband, or in a divorce situation. The AFN has stated their opposition to the bill and contend that the process would not be affordable to women who live on reserves in remote areas of the country.
Another consideration, which would undo the leadership within Native communities, is ownership. Under the present system, most homes in reserves across Canada are owned by the band itself. A couple may live in a house and consider it their own, but in a matter of marital dispute, the band council are the real owners. Bill S-4 would set a new precedent in divorce cases where a Native woman would be battling not only her husband but also the band council. So far, Harper’s conservatives have attempted to pass similar legislation and have failed. The House of Commons will again decide the fate of this bill, but will the result be any different? Only time will tell.