Mr. Speaker, as a member of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, I am pleased to speak today in support of Bill S-2, family homes on reserves and matrimonial interests or rights act.
Currently men, women and children living on the majority of on-reserve communities have no legal rights or protections in relation to the family home. In situations of family violence, for decades women have been victimized and kicked out of their homes with nowhere to go.
Statistics show that aboriginal women are almost three times more likely than other Canadian women to experience violent crime, including spousal violence. According to the 2009 general social survey, approximately 15% of aboriginal women in a marriage or with a common-law partner reported that they had experienced spousal violence in the previous five years. 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 knife or a gun, and 52% reported that they feared for their lives.
This is why Bill S-2 is so important. It will help to mitigate occasions of domestic violence on reserve by providing for emergency protection orders and exclusive occupation orders.
Currently, individuals living on reserve cannot go to court to seek exclusive occupation of the family home or apply for emergency protection orders while living in a family home on reserve in the event of a relationship breakdown or the death of a spouse or common-law partner.
Bill S-2 extends this basic protection to individuals living on reserve. In situations of family violence, a spouse can now apply for an emergency order to stay in the family home, at the exclusion of the other spouse, for a period of up to 90 days with the possibility for extension. These orders may be granted upon a hearing or an application to vary the original order at the judge's discretion.
An emergency protection order is quick, follows a simple process and is recognized by child and family justice advocates as being one of the most significant means of preventing family violence. Violations of these orders can result in fines or jail time. We know that emergency protection orders are invaluable tools in efforts to end family abuse and violence. Each year, hundreds of Canadians, most of them women who are victims of spousal abuse, petition courts to acquire these orders and access the legal protection that they can afford.
Police who are authorized by the courts to enforce the orders typically represent an effective line of defence for victims of family violence. As it stands today, residents of most first nation communities cannot access these tools. I say “most”, because a handful of first nations have established and enforce laws in this area through authorities acquired in self-government agreements or through the First Nations Land Management Act. Nevertheless, the vast majority of on-reserve couples cannot access these orders because no court has the legal authority to issue them.
Bill S-2 would change this. For every other region in Canada, other than on reserve, family law is the domain of the provinces and territories. Legislation exists in most provinces and territories that deal specifically with violence and intimate relationships. Although the names of these laws, along with the specific legal instruments that they include vary from one jurisdiction to another, they all provide powerful forms of protection to victims of spousal abuse and violence.
In general, the laws authorize two types of protection orders: short-term and long-term. These orders, sometimes known as an intervention, prevention or victim assistance orders, can be obtained 24 hours a day, by telephone or appointment, from a trained justice of the peace. In many cases a police officer or a victim services worker can apply for the orders on behalf of the victim.
To me, the absence of legal protection on reserve is simply unacceptable. We have tolerated a legally sanctioned form of discrimination in Canada, for women and children and other victims, for far too long. It is one that has claimed and continues to claim victims. Bill S-2 will change this.
In order to understand the value of these orders, it is crucial to appreciate the larger context. An act of domestic abuse, such as a husband beating his wife, may be an isolated incident, but it is also part of a relationship's larger dynamic.
Domestic abuse is often a gradual and incremental process, and the frequency and seriousness of the violence tends to escalate slowly over the years, even decades. In many cases, abusers express deep remorse and promise to change, and then go on to break these promises.
For the victims of violence, it can take years to recognize that the violence will never stop and that the relationship is poisonous, dangerous and unsalvageable. Until victims come to this conclusion, though, they often cannot conceive of acting decisively by leaving the family home or by securing a court order to banish the abusive spouse.
The victims' long-term experience leads to the erosion of self-confidence, making it even more difficult to believe that they deserve better treatment, that they can find the courage to leave and that they can manage on their own.
Exclusive occupation and emergency protection orders provide the separation victims often need to heal and to make a new start. It is regrettable that the need for these orders remains so strong in 2013. Part of the reason for this sad reality lies in the history of how our society and legal system address relationships between spouses. As my hon. colleagues recognize, the law has not always protected the rights of women as it does today.
Of course, we all recognize that our laws have evolved dramatically over the years to reflect the needs and aspirations of Canadians, but the legacy of the past shapes our current circumstance. There was a time when Canadian women had few options in life. Living as independent citizens was virtually impossible, employment options were extremely limited and few of the jobs that were open to women paid a living wage. The vast majority of women married, and most went on to have children and to enjoy happy, fulfilled lives.
Women were assigned a specific role in society, were expected to fulfill this particular role and were respected for it. The laws at the time reflected this social norm. As norms have changed in recent generations, we have done much to eliminate outdated laws and attitudes. Bill S-2 would take us one large step further along this road.
Part of the legislation now before us addresses the link between spousal violence and matrimonial rights and interests. Over time, the laws governing matrimonial rights and interests have evolved to reflect new social norms. Yet, this type of evolution typically occurs in fits and starts, and the law usually lags behind progress in societal attitudes. This is because the impetus to amend the law often comes only from incidents and trends that the public considers repugnant; such as husbands being able to beat their wives with impunity.
Today, of course, Canadian attitudes about violence against women have changed dramatically. Violence against women is no longer socially acceptable, and the law reflects these attitudes to a large extent. This is why family law includes instruments such as emergency protection and exclusive occupation orders. These orders are designed specifically to address spousal violence and to complement the protections provided by the Criminal Code.
However, the authority for these orders exists only under provincial or territorial law. The Supreme Court ruled that these laws do not apply on first nation reserves. Bill S-2 proposes to fill this unacceptable gap and to help prevent the harsh reality experienced by so many victims.
Under Bill S-2, a spouse or a common-law partner residing on reserve could apply to a judge or justice of the peace for an emergency protection order. The order, enforceable by police, would exclude the spouse or common-law partner from the family home for a period of up to 90 days. The order may be extended once, for a period of time determined by a judge. Orders issued by a justice of the peace or a provincial court judge must be reviewed by the superior court as soon as possible.
The federal regime would authorize applications submitted by telephone or email to ensure that people living in remote communities could access the orders. The regime would also authorize a police officer or another appropriate person to apply on behalf of a spouse or a common-law partner. This provision would enable people who face dangerously unpredictable spouses or common-law partners to secure orders without exposing themselves to undue risk.
The regime would also enable people to apply for exclusive occupation orders, which could provide longer-term protection.
Exclusive occupation and emergency protection orders are only one part of the protection that Bill S-2 would provide. It would provide stability for women and their children, through continued access to the family home; continued connection to the community and extended family; access to services, children's programs and education facilities within the community; and the equitable distribution of marital real property assets. In addition, it would improve the ability of first nations to meet the specific needs within their communities.
A little more than 30 years ago, the members of this House laughed when one of their hon. colleagues raised the issue of violence against women and suggested that new laws were needed. The laughter caused a public outcry and inspired a host of changes, including legislation. Today, violence against women is widely recognized as a scourge.
Statistics Canada research indicates that aboriginal women are more likely than non-aboriginal women to suffer severe injuries, such as broken bones, inflicted by a violent spouse. Today, we have an opportunity to help eliminate a factor that contributes to this violence.
Canada has made substantial progress in the issue of violence against women, but much more remains to be done. While the factors that contribute to the issue are manifold and complex, there can be no doubt that emergency protection and exclusive occupation orders are effective, both as deterrents and as defensive mechanisms.
Today, we are seeking to eliminate a human rights issue. Through Bill S-2, we would finally be extending the same basic rights and protections to aboriginal women as all other Canadians currently enjoy.
I urge the opposition to stop denying aboriginal women equal rights and to vote in favour of this legislation.