moved that Bill C-8, 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 second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to express my support for Bill C-8, Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act.
We have before us in Canada, an inexcusable and intolerable situation that has gone on far too long. Before I discuss this bill, it is important to have a sound understanding of matrimonial rights and interests.
An inexcusable and intolerable situation has gone on for far too long in Canada. Before I discuss the main planks of the bill, it is important to have a basic understanding of matrimonial rights and interests.
Matrimonial real property, or MRP, typically refers to the family home where both spouses in a marriage or common law relationship live on reserve. For almost all Canadians, provincial and territorial laws protect the MRP rights and interests of both spouses in the event of separation, divorce or death. These laws address a wide range of circumstances. If the family home is sold, for instance, both spouses must share in the proceeds. These laws also authorize a judge to order a spouse to temporarily leave the family home, particularly in cases of domestic violence and physical abuse.
Shamefully, these same laws that all Canadians take for granted do not apply on reserve. Spouses who live in communities governed by the Indian Act are afforded no such protection. This is because the Indian Act does not address the issue, and past governments have failed to remedy this glaring omission through legislation. As a result, relationship breakdowns in first nations communities often lead to homelessness and poverty, particularly for women and children.
Although each victim's situation is unique, we can all envision the following type of unfortunate and sad scenario: A husband and wife and their family live together in a house on first nations land. The marriage breaks down, who knows why, and the husband forces his wife and children to leave the family home. The woman has no legal recourse. She must find another place for her and her children to live. Often she has no choice but to leave the community. She is homeless. She is impoverished. Meanwhile, no court in the land can prevent the husband from selling the home and pocketing the cash.
It is unacceptable that this scenario continues to play out in Canada in the 21st century. Parliament must act. This bill would quickly remedy this legal void.
In highlighting the importance of this Parliament passing Bill C-8, I want to stress four important aspects of this legislation.
First, our Conservative government fully recognizes that first nations are best placed to make choices about the balance between the rights of first nations and the collective property rights. They are in the best position to develop those laws. That is why Bill C-8 describes a process for first nations communities to develop and enact their own laws in this area. That is the first thing. Let us allow first nations to develop the laws that apply in their situation on reserve. I think all sides of the House recognize that.
Second, while first nations develop their own laws, a remedy for vulnerable citizens living on reserve is urgently required. Bill C-8 proposes the immediate application of interim federal protection on reserves similar to those enjoyed by all other Canadians.
Third, the bill was developed after exhaustive study, authoritative research and comprehensive consultation with first nations groups.
Finally, Bill C-8 complements this government's larger initiatives to protect the rights and interests of first nations people. Again, I would point out that Bill C-21, which we passed in the last Parliament, was supported by all sides of the House. For the first time it brought the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act to bear on people living on reserve.
The first element of Bill C-8 provides an enabling process for first nations to establish MRP regimes of their own, regimes based on the cultural and social norms of their communities. To create such a law, a first nation most hold a fair and democratic vote on its proposed MRP legislation that must be approved by the entire community.
Laws that meet these conditions are not subject to review, consideration or rejection by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development or by the department. In other words, as first nations develop those laws based on their community customs, they bring them forward and have them endorsed at the community level. I cannot intervene, nor should I, in making sure that those would be the laws of application for that particular community.
The next element of the proposed legislation goes hand in hand with my first reason for supporting Bill C-8. It sets out a federal regime that will immediately protect the MRP rights and interests of first nations spouses and common law partners. The regime would provide residents of first nations communities with access to legal recourse similar to that available to all other Canadians. This would close the unacceptable legislative gap that currently exists. It will protect some of the most vulnerable Canadians who right now have no protection in case of that marital breakdown.
Our outright support for Bill C-8 is also based on the fact that the proposed legislation is founded on a sizable body of sound research and an exhaustive consultation. There are multiple standing committee reports with all parties voicing support, having recommended a swift and enduring legislative solution. International groups, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, reached similar conclusions.
A comprehensive consultation process also informs the legislation now before us. In 2006 a collaborative process facilitated by the esteemed Wendy Grant-John and involving the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations saw 103 consultative sessions held at 76 different sites across the country. In fact, over $8 million was provided to the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations to carry out a consultative process. We wanted input and we got it.
This government also went to great lengths to create a legislative solution that would satisfy all stakeholders. Our proposal was largely based on the results of the consultations and many of Wendy Grant-John's thoughtful recommendations. A draft legislative proposal was then shared with key stakeholders, including the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women's Association of Canada, the First Nations Lands Advisory Board and the provinces and territories. Their input resulted in significant improvements to the legislation before us today.
I would also point out that Bill C-47, this bill's predecessor, has been in the public domain for all to see and review for a full year now. It passed at second reading in the 39th Parliament. I think members on all sides of the House wanted to get this into committee for further evaluation and study, knowing that we need to address this legislative gap. That is why it passed in the last Parliament with all-party support.
The proposed legislation incorporates the ideas put forward and addresses concerns expressed during many years of study, analysis and discussion.
Virtually every first nation group in Canada that spoke to this issue during the consultation strongly opposed the application of provincial laws, so that option was discarded. To respond to those who demanded that any solution address the cultural values and traditions of first nation communities, Bill C-8 provides a process for first nations to develop their own culturally specific laws on the issue.
At the same time, the national approach taken in this bill will ensure that the immediate protection provided will be consistent for first nations across the country. In other words, it will apply immediately, but first nations are encouraged to bring in their own laws, and I am sure many of them will do so quickly, developed in their own communities that under this legislation will supersede the national standards in this act. It will have the stand-alone, community based, community endorsed, community ratified solution for that particular first nation. That is as it should be, in our opinion, and that is why this deserves broad support.
Some groups also raised concerns about the implementation of a federal MRP regime. There are two answers to this.
First, as I have mentioned, this legislation takes the minister and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs out of the picture regarding first nations MRP laws on reserves. Instead, this bill recognizes that first nations, not the federal government, are best placed to make these decisions related to MRP.
We have taken many measures to ensure that even during the time when the interim federal protection applies, collective interests are well balanced with individual needs. That is important for first nations. They need to know that the reserve property that is owned collectively is not going to be sold out from underneath them. This cannot happen under this legislation. No one ever intended that and we were careful to make sure that the protection and balance is in this legislation. Again all of it was done with the intent that first nations will develop their own MRP laws that will be community specific and ratified in the local community.
Given that implementation concerns cannot be readily addressed in the legislation itself--we cannot answer all these questions that way--the Government of Canada plans to establish a centre of excellence to support first nations and to deliver training and information sessions to law enforcement and court officials. It will be a place where best practices are maintained. A repository of information and research material will be there for first nations that are in the midst of developing their own laws for their own communities.
These actions touch upon my final point.
Bill C-8 is part of a much larger strategy to improve the quality of life experienced by residents of first nations communities. This strategy involves working in collaboration with first nations organizations and other willing partners to identify and attack the root causes of injustice and inequity.
This strategy has already produced tangible results on a variety of issues and a comprehensive plan developed in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations. A good example is the specific claims legislation that this government brought in. It addresses the unacceptable backlog of hundreds and hundreds of claims. First nations have been looking for some 40 years for laws to give some assurance that these will be settled in a timely fashion.
We worked with first nations. We brought in that legislation. That plan was endorsed by Parliament to establish an independent tribunal to adjudicate these claims. I mentioned earlier Bill C-21 and the issue of the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act. It is another good example of how that kind of application on reserve, specific claims on reserve and a record number of treaty land entitlement resolutions that we have had especially on the Prairies, all point to addressing those long-standing issues in order to address other inequities and inequalities in the system, and certainly that is what we are eager to do.
As I mentioned, this will be, in my opinion, the flagship human rights legislation introduced in this Parliament, certainly by me. It deals with something that has been a legislative gap for far too long. It is something that other Canadians take for granted. It is time we addressed that gap. Some people and some communities talk about human rights. Some other countries talk about the importance of human rights; Canada certainly does, but we are acting on this basic human right.
I believe Bill C-8 offers another historic opportunity to better protect the basic rights of first nations people.
The legislation asks the members of this House two fundamental questions. First, should this country extend the legal rights, recourses and protections enjoyed by all other Canadians, and should we extend that, with this legislation, to first nations communities?
Second, should first nations have the power to develop MRP laws that reflect the cultural and social traditions of their communities? That is the flip side of the same coin.
In my opinion, the answer is yes, we must move to protect the most vulnerable in society, to fill that legislative gap as quickly as possible, to ensure that first nation communities, and especially the vulnerable in first nation communities, have the access to rights that all other Canadians enjoy.
Equally as important, the flip side of that same coin is that we on this side of the House support first nations developing their own MRP laws to address that gap. When they address that gap, it will be approved in their local communities. They will address it in a way that is sensitive to their local situation and their social norms and their cultural traditions.
Once that is done, passed and ratified, then the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs cannot interfere in first nations' proper exercise of their authority to develop that MRP law of their own. That is essential to the flip side of this important coin.
It is my hope that hon. colleagues here today and in the days to come at committee will do the right thing and will do the honourable thing, which I think is to stand up for the most vulnerable in society and support Bill C-8 through all stages in this House and in committee so that first nations can enjoy the same rights as every other Canadian.
When we went through the debate on Bill C-21 in the last Parliament, there was concern about trying to achieve perfection. We talked about whether it was the right time to do this, whether we could have done something more, and whether we could have consulted more. In this case, we have consulted at over 100 different community meetings.
I suppose we could always say we could more. We could spend more money on consultations. We could extend it indefinitely into the future. But at some point we have to come down solidly and say, enough is enough, it is time to extend this right that every other Canadian knows in their heart and has experienced, sometimes unfortunately has experienced it in the courts, but at least they have a way to address this longstanding issue in their community.
I would just ask people to wrap their head around this. What would one say to that first nation lady who is looking for some access to the matrimonial real property that she and her husband have built over the years? She might say, “Unfortunately the marriage has broken down, but I could get off to the next step by getting half of the assets of the matrimonial property and move forward, maybe into another home or into another situation, looking after my children”.
We need to say to that lady or that man, “We are there for you. We will do the right thing in this Parliament of Canada. We will extend to you the same rights as every other Canadian.” We are going to do it starting today, and we are going to do it as quickly as we can.