In keeping with the Paris Principles, which guide the work of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) and other national human rights institutions around the world, the CHRC advises Parliament regularly on matters related to human rights in Canada. In 2013, the CHRC was called before Parliament on the following issues.
Matrimonial real property rights
When a family goes through separation or divorce in Canada, provincial or territorial law ensures that ownership of the family home and division of other assets is dealt with fairly.
But until this year, no such laws applied to First Nations communities. Because of this, many First Nations women had no legal claim to their home or matrimonial property when their relationships ended. In many cases, they found themselves forced to leave their communities, often seeking refuge in urban environments.
On June 19, 2013, Parliament passed the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, giving men and women equal rights to the family home and other matrimonial property in the event of a relationship breakdown, divorce or death.
Proponents of the law hailed it as a significant milestone for Aboriginal women’s rights.
“Currently, Aboriginal women in our country cannot go to court and seek exclusive occupation of the family home or apply for emergency protection orders while living in a family home on a reserve,” Honourable Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said. “The bill extends this basic protection [of matrimonial law] to individuals living on reserve.”
Others have criticized the law for not offering enough in the way of resources or community supports to prevent the victimization of women living on reserves. Speaking before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women as it studied the Bill, Councillor Joan Jack of the Berens River First Nation asked, pointedly: “if this legislation goes through and there are some women on reserve who want to access justice, how are they supposed to do that?”
In his address to the Committee, Acting Chief Commissioner David Langtry raised similar concerns. There are limited resources in many communities, he observed, for “on-reserve measures associated with matrimonial real property such as housing, emergency shelters, counselling and legal assistance.” Nevertheless, Mr. Langtry stressed that addressing the matrimonial rights of First Nations women through new federal legislation was an “urgent human rights matter.”
Under the new law, First Nations governments can choose to set up their own matrimonial real property laws, or defer to provisional federal rules. In December 2013, the federal government announced $5 million of funding over five years for a new Centre of Excellence for Matrimonial Real Property. Operating at arm’s length from the federal government, the Centre of Excellence will assist First Nations in implementing the new legislation or in developing their own matrimonial real property laws. The Centre will also provide information about the new legislation and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to First Nations members.
On April 22, 2013, the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) appeared before the Senate Committee on Human Rights. The Committee was studying whether federal public service hiring and promotion practices are discriminatory. The study also looked at whether employment equity targets are being met.
In his presentation to the committee, Acting Chief Commissioner David Langtry said that equality of opportunity in Canada’s workplace is a realistic and attainable goal. He also spoke about how the CHRC’s employment equity compliance audits help break down barriers to employment.
Bill C-279, introduced in the last session of Parliament, would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include “gender identity” as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
In his presentation to the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, Mr. David Langtry said that “adding the ground of ‘gender identity’ to the Act would make protection for members of the transgender community explicit.” He added that, “it would promote acceptance, [and] would send a clear message that in Canada, everyone has the right to be treated with equality, dignity and respect.”
Mr. Langtry also said that, “the discrimination or harassment experienced by people who are transgender is often hostile and sometimes hateful and violent.” He spoke of how many transgender people do not identify themselves because they are afraid of being shunned by society or of being harassed or treated unfairly. He added that in some cases, transgender people are afraid for their safety.
Bill C-279 was before the Senate when Parliament was prorogued in September 2013. At the time of writing, the Bill had been reintroduced in the Senate.