Aboriginal Policy Reform and the Subsidiarity Principle: A Case Study of the Division of Matrimonial Real Property on Canadian Indian Reserves

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Abstract: According to the Indian Act, aboriginal women in Canada do not have the same equality rights as aboriginal men living on-reserve and non-aboriginal women living off-reserve. The Indian Act's provisions governing the division of matrimonial real property on Canadian Indian reserves have dispossessed many aboriginal women of their property entitlements during and after separation and divorce proceedings. Despite the existence of this problem for the last fifty-five years, the Indian Act has proven highly resistant to reform. A number of First Nations, however, have recently been able to address this issue by developing local matrimonial property laws through the First Nations Land Management Act, a federal piece of legislation that is separate from the Indian Act. Not only have these local laws provided solutions to a policy problem left unaddressed by the federal government, they have also given aboriginal women greater equality rights during and after divorce proceedings while respecting local preferences. This article argues that government and aboriginal policy-makers should consider making greater use of the subsidiarity principle when engaging in reforms to the Indian Act.

Sommaire : Aux termes de la Loi sur les Indiens, les femmes autochtones au Canada n'ont pas les memes droits a l'egalite que les hommes autochtones dans les reserves et que les femmes non autochtones hors des reserves. Les dispositions de la Loi sur les Indiens regissant la division des biens immobiliers matrimoniaux sur les reserves indiennes canadiennes ont depossede de nombreuses femmes autochtones de leurs droits de propriete pendant et apres les procedures de separation et de divorce. Alors que ce probleme existe depuis 55 ans, il se trouve que la Loi sur les Indiens a fortement resiste a la reforme. Cependant, un certain nombre de Premieres nations ont reussi recemment a aborder ce probleme en elaborant des lois locales sur les biens matrimoniaux par l'intermediaire de la Loi sur la gestion des terres des premieres nations, texte de loi federal distinct de la Loi sur les Indiens. Non seulement ces lois locales ontelles apporte des solutions a un probleme de politique que le gouvernement federal n'avait pas regle, mais elles ont egalement donne aux femmes autochtones de plus grands droits en matiere d'egalite pendant et apres les procedures de divorce tout en respectant les preferences locales. Le present article indique que le gouvernement et les decideurs de politiques autochtones devraient envisager faire un plus grand usage du principe de subsidiarite lorsqu'ils entreprennent des reformes de la Loi sur les Indiens.


Over the last twenty years, there has been a growing consensus among members of the aboriginal policy community that the Indian Act needs to be replaced or at least significantly reformed. Despite this growing consensus, the Indian Act has proven highly resistant to reform and replacement. For instance, the last major attempt to overhaul the Indian Act was in 2001-02 when the federal government tried to pass the First Nations Governance Act, a comprehensive legislation that sought to modify on-reserve election rules, voting eligibility, and spending regulations, among other things. In the end, the federal government abandoned the First Nations Governance Act after a number of aboriginal leaders successfully mobilized significant opposition against it.

The durability of the Indian Act has generally had a negative effect on aboriginal peoples in Canada, and most particularly on status-Indian women. (1) Until 1985, for instance, the Indian Act mandated that Indian status could only be passed patrilineally (through aboriginal fathers), meaning that any status-Indian woman who married a non-status man had to give up her Indian status. Moreover, any children produced by that marriage could not gain Indian-status through their mother. In 1985, the federal government attempted to correct this gender discrimination by passing Bill C-31, with mixed results. …