2, 2007 — Imagine
being locked out of your own home by your community. Now imagine having
all your amenities cut off once you've managed to break back into your
|Aboriginal women in downtown Vancouver perform
the Strong Woman Song.
year, this situation was all too real for Gratia Bunnie.
Bunnie’s husband, Samuel, died in June 2004. After a "grieving
period," Bunnie was evicted from her Sakimay First Nation home
just east of Regina, Saskatchewan. The reserve’s chief and
council had decided that she could no longer live there because she
had never become a band member.
"There was no housing policy in place at the time my husband passed
After the eviction, Bunnie broke back into her house and posted a sign
on her front door that read: "I declare my right to occupy my matrimonial
Bunnie’s case was brought to Saskatchewan’s provincial
court on May 14. On July 26, Justice Janet McMurtry
dismissed the request to evict her until the council properly handled
her application to become a band member.
Bunnie remains a member of a different First Nation, the Cowessess First
Nation, even though she has lived on the Sakimay reserve for more than
No matrimonial property laws on reserves
Situations like Bunnie’s have become far too common on reserves. So
common, in fact, that the Native Women’s Association of Canada
(NWAC) recently published a report about the matrimonial real property
issues facing native women today.
The report, published in October, defines matrimonial real
property as "the house or land that a couple lives on while they
are married or in a common-law relationship."
Matrimonial property laws fall under provincial jurisdiction. When
the Indian Act was amended in 1985, it made it clear that reserves fall
under federal jurisdiction. Provincial matrimonial real property
laws were thus pushed aside and could no longer apply to reserves.
In Bunnie’s case, the situation was made worse because she had
never become a member of her husband’s band. Before 1985,
a woman automatically joined her husband’s band when she got married.
amendment meant to end discrimination against women on reserves had
some unintended consequences. It meant, for example, that Bunnie
and other women like her aren’t always recognized as the proper
Aboriginal women more at risk
Statistics Canada says that Aboriginal women are more likely
to experience spousal abuse, higher unemployment rates and lower incomes
than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
The department of Indian and Northern Affairs published a report in
March 2007 concerning matrimonial real property issues. The
report arrived at three possible legislative solutions to the problem.
|'Women have trouble accessing
the court system and all the protections that are in place.'
The first is to apply provincial matrimonial property laws to reserves. The
second is to include provincial laws while granting each reserve
the authority to exercise those laws as it sees fit. The third option
is to have a federal matrimonial property law that also gives each reserve
the authority to exercise jurisdiction.
"The minister (of Indian and Northern Affairs) has indicated
publicly that he will be introducing (a bill) in the fall," says
Lila Duffy, director of women’s issues for the department.
Duffy could not comment on the legislation, however, because it is
still under review.
She also could not comment on the types of non-legislative solutions
that the Native Women’s Association of Canada says are essential.
Legislation not the only solution
"Legislation is just a partial solution," says Elizabeth
Bastien, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s policy
|Many challenges facing Aboriginals today date
far back to when the Indian Act was first introduced.
NWAC would like to see Indian and Northern Affairs implement programs
to educate Aboriginal women about their rights so that they may be better
prepared to seek legal aid if matrimonial real property issues arise.
Resources to help prevent spousal violence are necessary, says the
association. Reserves could address this problem by having more
transitional housing for women and children, for example.
Proper access to the court system is also a key issue for NWAC. "Women
have trouble accessing the court system and all the protections that
are in place," says
The association has met with the Department of Indian and Northern
Affairs on several occasions and the focus has always been on the legislation,
She says she is worried that it won’t be sufficient or pointed
in the right direction.
For her part, Bunnie says she is confident her case could set a precedent
for women who are not recognized as band members after their husbands