First Nations elder and Trent University professor Shirley WilliamsVANCOUVER, British Columbia (WOMENSENEWS)–After enduring an abusive marriage for more than a decade, Shirley Williams knew she needed to get out.

Williams, a First Nations elder, decided she could no longer put up with her husband’s alcohol-fueled violence and in 1979, at the age of 40, she packed up and left.

"I didn’t want to live like that anymore," Williams said. "Things were not improving. He wasn’t going to change and somebody had to change."

With nowhere to live, Williams, now 71, said she relied on the help of friends and family and enrolled in university to earn a degree in indigenous studies.

Other First Nations women in Canada, she is quick to note, are not so fortunate.

Due to a gap in legislation over matrimonial property rights for couples living on First Nations reservations, some First Nations women find themselves homeless when their relationships break down.

Provincial and territorial laws relating to matrimonial property do not apply on reservations, which are governed under the Indian Act, a statute that regulates First Nations people. The Indian Act, however, is silent on the issue of matrimonial property rights.

"Similar rights and remedies are available to all other Canadians through provincial and territorial laws which currently can’t be applied on reserves, a fact our government finds unacceptable," Nina Chiarelli, director of communications for the Minister of Indian Affairs, said in an e-mail.

Chiarelli said the government remains committed to resolving the issue, which is exclusive to First Nations people living on reservations. "First Nations people should have access to these protections just like everyone else," she said.

The Ministry of Indian Affairs has drafted Bill C-8, which would set out provisional federal rules, such as ensuring the equal division of a couple’s matrimonial property on reservations, until various First Nations communities develop their own laws.

It was scheduled to be deliberated in parliament in January.

Parliament Suspension Delays Bill

However, that bill, along with many others, has been delayed since Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided in late December to suspend parliament, which will continue while the country hosts the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Williams, professor emeritus of indigenous studies at the Ontario-based Trent University and an Ojibwa and Odawa elder, said the bill would be particularly helpful for mothers fleeing domestic violence.

Such women, she said, can sometimes be forced, due to safety concerns, to leave their reservations–and their community and cultural connections.

Many women wind up at temporary women’s shelters and struggle to maintain custody of their children, said Williams, who has no children of her own but was temporarily a primary caregiver for two of her sister’s children. "I think a lot of women are afraid if they don’t find a place, their children will be taken away [by social services] because they can’t afford to all be together."

The bill, however, has not won the favor of many First Nations groups, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of B.C. (British Columbia) Indian Chiefs. They have all objected to the government’s failure to consult First Nations communities affected by the bill, as well as its infringement on First Nations sovereignty. While the Ministry of Indian Affairs’ mandate is to help First Nations people develop healthier, more sustainable communities, it is not run by aboriginal groups.


Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Vancouver-based Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said First Nations communities have been at odds with the government for years over their right to self-determination, and Bill C-8 is yet another example of federal interference.

"Generally speaking, the Harper government has been very adversarial to the rights and interests of the indigenous people of this country," Phillip said.

"There’s been a number of legislative initiatives that have been advanced by the government of Canada and they don’t really consult or attempt to consult the aboriginal community," he said, noting Bill C-8 is no exception.

Past Actions Fuel Mistrust

Phillip points to the Canadian government’s refusal to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as evidence of its resistance to First Nations sovereignty. The declaration, which affirms the right of indigenous people to self-determination, was approved by an overwhelming majority of the U.N. National Assembly; Canada was 1 of only 4 countries to vote against it. Canada’s refusal, which the government said was based on a lack of practical guidance and "vague and ambiguous" text, has been lambasted by international rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Moreover, Phillip said, it has fueled the mistrust of First Nations groups.

Phillip, an outspoken activist against violence against women, added that he believed the problem of First Nations women being forced from their homes might be overstated.

"The suggestion that there is a mass exodus of women off the reserve that are left destitute, I haven’t witnessed," he said, noting he has served more than 24 years as a band councilor and band chief.

Yet arguing against Bill C-8 is "very, very difficult because there’s a spirit and an intent that’s unassailable in terms of fair treatment and justice for women," he said.

Other advocates for First Nations women acknowledge it is difficult to determine the extent of the problem, as many women are involved in common-law relationships. This makes it harder to tally the number of women forced from their homes when their unregistered relationships dissolve.

However, some argue the problem is too severe for inaction, since women who decide to leave their relationships face separation from their communities, which provide cultural support as well as access to social programs.

Williams said Bill C-8 needs to be enacted quickly. Its critics, she said, were too complacent with the status quo. "I think a lot of people are comfortable with what is there now because they’re afraid of change."

When a woman has nowhere to go, "it’s urgent to find a place and find a home for your children," she said.

Wency Leung is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada.

For more information:

Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act:

Union of B.C. Chiefs:

Native Women’s Association of Canada:

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