Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to debate Bill S-2, 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.
This is not the first time this issue has come up in the House of Commons. Similar bills have been debated during previous Parliaments. This is the fourth time we have talked about this issue. Why did the government wait so long to bring this bill forward? Why, after all this time, is it still flawed?
Aboriginal women's rights advocacy groups have made it clear to me that they are against this bill. I would like to point out that they were not consulted with respect to Bill S-2. They were consulted previously about other bills on this issue.
Fortunately, parliamentary committees asked people to appear as witnesses on this subject. Of course, the Conservative government seems to be restricting parliamentary committees' freedom more and more, which means that fewer and fewer witnesses are able to appear. Still, aboriginal women's groups were able to testify before the parliamentary committee, and they expressed clear opposition to this bill.
I would like to say a few more things about that. What is the primary objective of the bill before us? Matrimonial rights are simply not covered in the Indian Act, so we have a dilemma because some areas of jurisdiction may be seen as falling under provincial legislation. How are we addressing that?
The bill before us concerns matrimonial rights and interests, primarily with respect to property rights. In Canada, there are two kinds of property: movable assets and real property. Real property means everything not attached to the ground. This bill is really about rights to housing, homes and land. The dilemma is that first nations do not own their own land. This is a real legal dilemma, and Bill S-2 makes a noble attempt to resolve it. This is a step in the right direction because we have to recognize that this is a problem we need to solve.
The problem is that not only do first nations members not own their own land, but they are also currently experiencing a housing crisis because there are not enough homes. That causes all kinds of problems. This bill addresses sociological issues that could cause families to split up or that could lead to divorce, but it also addresses cases in which there is a death. In such cases, we have to determine what happens to the family assets.
The bill tries to address these problems, but unfortunately it does not do nearly enough.
For example, if the first nations are experiencing a housing crisis, if a woman wants to separate from her husband or if a family splits up, where will these people live?
The bill skips a number of steps. The first step seems quite obvious to me: fix the housing crisis within our first nations. If there is a shortage of housing, where will people go if they want a divorce? A number of families in my riding share the same home. That makes no sense. We need to fix this problem.
This bill brings up another problem: access to justice. Legal assistance is simply not available. That is another area of shared responsibility, since provincial and federal courts are unfamiliar with the rights and traditions of the first nations. Unfortunately, this bill does nothing to address those issues.
We must absolutely talk about the courts having a knowledge of first nations traditions. Why would the first nations be subject to a provincial court if that court is not familiar with first nations traditions?
The Crown has an obligation to ensure that the courts that are affected by this bill have the information they need well in advance. The funding is simply not there. Once again, the Conservative government wants to place an obligation on the provinces without giving them the resources they need to fulfill it.
This is a rather serious problem across Canada. Every time this Conservative government suggests sharing responsibilities with the provinces, it seems to forget that this requires resources. It completely ignores the fact that the provinces do not have the means, especially when they are being forced to take on more and more roles that would normally be federal responsibilities.
In any event, since it is mostly women who would be affected by this bill, how are they supposed to exercise their new rights if they do not have the means to do so? How are they going to get to the courts in question if they do not live in the designated communities? They will be far from home.
If the bill passes, many aboriginal women will simply be incapable of exercising their rights because they will not have the means to get to the courts in question, which will quite often be far from their community. This is major flaw. Why not plan to have the courts go to them, instead of insisting that the courts, which are quite far away, be the places where matters related to this bill are resolved?
Parliament has dealt with this bill a number of times, in a number of previous parliaments, and a number of studies have been done. The problem is that the recommendations that have come out of these studies have been ignored and are not included in Bill S-2.
The Senate came out with the report, “A Hard Bed to Lie in: Matrimonial Real Property on Reserve”.
In that case, in 2003, they recommended that provincial laws apply. That was a good idea.
The Senate, still waiting in 2004, identified the lack of clarity for the rights of women on reserve as a human rights issue that was a recurring recommendation from the UN, which was a very damaging report.
In 2005, arm in arm, the parliamentary committee talks came up with five recommendations, which we see very few of in the bill in front of us today.
In 2006, again, the Status of Women report identified barriers, including insufficient funding or the implementation of it, especially for the problem of chronic housing shortages on reserves and the lack of high level consultations.
Again, the need for consultation and funding was recommended and, again in the bill, the government simply did not do its jobs. It did not consult with first nations on Bill S-2. The Conservatives asked them to come to the parliamentary committees. Thank goodness the opposition was there to insist that they show up, otherwise the government never would have consult first nations women, which is absolutely hypocritical on its part.
One of the biggest problems with this bill is that aboriginal communities have only 12 months to implement it. Most of the communities asked for three years if this bill passes. One year is absolutely not enough.
Again, there are some serious problems to address in aboriginal communities. There is a chronic lack of housing in aboriginal communities. If we do not deal with these basic problems, then how can we deal with fundamental problems such as matrimonial rights?
Matrimonial rights cannot be dealt with if a woman has nowhere else to stay. This is a simple, but fundamental problem. If we do not tackle the fundamental problems of first nations, then a bill like Bill S-2 can never be implemented fairly and in such a way as to guarantee the rights of aboriginal women in Canada.