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Senate approves bill to help abused, divorced aboriginal women

Aboriginal senator Lillian Dyck opposed Bill S-4.

Geoff Howe/The Globe and Mail

Government legislation to help prevent women who live on reserves from losing their homes because of a divorce or abuse has won final approval from the Senate in spite of passionate last-minute warnings from female native senators that the bill would leave women worse off.

The Senate voted 45-32 to give third and final reading to the legislation on Tuesday, but it's still a long way from becoming law.

Bill S-4, as it is called, is one of a handful of government bills the Conservatives opted to introduce in the Senate first. That means it still must be debated and approved in the House of Commons. The Harper government has twice attempted to pass the measures through the Commons, but the legislation died both times on the Order Paper.

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Provincial divorce laws do not apply on reserves. As a result, women on reserve do not have the same legal options in such disputes as women who live off reserve, leaving them to plead their case to the local band council.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that homes on many reserves are essentially owned and managed by the band council, leading some to view the debate as pitting the individual rights of women against the collective land rights of aboriginal communities.

Policy experts have long called for an end to the status quo, but a widely accepted solution has been elusive.

The government bill sets up federal rules granting reserve residents access to the courts to sort out residency and ownership issues when a spouse wants protection from an abusive partner, or a couple breaks up. Critics say the system would be too expensive for many native women, particularly those in remote reserves.

Liberal Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, who is from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, rose in the chamber last week to urge her colleagues not to support the bill, which she called "terribly flawed" because there wasn't enough consultation with natives.

"I was that woman that was beaten and kicked out of my house with my small children because I did not have resources or housing. I was forced to go back, only to have it happen time and time again. My own mother went through the same abuse, as did my daughter. There are thousands of stories that tell of experiences of abuse," she said. "I cannot believe honourable senators would pass Bill S-4 without proper consultation with the very people it will impact, without knowing what it is like to feel helpless and without the proper resources."

The Government Leader in the Senate, Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton, said in an interview after the vote that she was "amazed" and "mystified" by the efforts of Ms. Lovelace Nicholas and Liberal aboriginal Senator Lillian Dyck to defeat the bill. She said the legislation is aimed at preventing cases of repeated abuse.

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"I think we've talked long enough about it. It's time to take action," she said. The Assembly of First Nations also opposes the bill because it considers the consultations inadequate, and several chiefs spoke against it when it was studied in committee.

"There was a very strong lobby in the aboriginal community, who perhaps likes things the way they are right now. That's the only conclusion I can draw," said Ms. LeBreton. Asked if she was referring to chiefs being mostly male, she replied: "That's one argument: That the chiefs are pretty powerful, pretty strong and they're mostly male."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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