Aboriginal Law (Script 237)
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This script highlights key areas of law that apply to Aboriginal people in BC. But this is a complex and changing area of law, which the script cannot explain in detail. For more information, check the various sources listed in the script.
- 1 Who is an Aboriginal Person and why does it matter?
- 2 How does criminal law apply to Aboriginal people?
- 3 How does family law apply to Aboriginal people?
- 4 How does tax law differ for Indian people?
- 5 How are Indian wills and estates regulated?
- 6 What laws apply to Aboriginal rights, treaty rights, and human rights of Aboriginal people in BC?
- 7 Where can you find more information on Aboriginal law?
Who is an Aboriginal Person and why does it matter?
An Indian is a person registered as an Indian with the federal government under the Indian Act. These people are called status Indians or registered Indians. Every Indian must apply for Indian status and show that they have a right to be registered based on factors in the Indian Act. It’s a complex process.
An amendment to the Canadian constitution in 1982 defined the Aboriginal peoples of Canada to include Indian, Inuit and Métis people.
The primary legal relationship of Indian people is with the federal government. Lands held by the federal government for the use and benefit of Indian people are known as “reserves”. Status Indians may receive various rights and benefits for housing and tax exemptions when living on reserves. Other benefits, such as health and education, may be available both on and off reserve.
The basic unit of Indian organization and government is the “band”, but Indian status does not necessarily include band membership. Band membership depends on who controls the band’s membership list: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada or the band, but only the federal government can decide on status. The Nisga’a Lisims Government has its own citizenship laws. For more information about Indian status and band membership, check with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Many provincial laws do not apply to Indian people or reserve land; others apply through section 88 of the Indian Act. As well, some Indian people are parties to treaties and land claims agreements that set out rights and responsibilities that may operate independently of the Indian Act. In other words, the legal position of Indian people in British Columbia involves a complex interplay of federal and provincial law, as well as possible treaty and other rights.
The term “First Nation” has come into popular use as a term of respect for the position of Aboriginal people as the original inhabitants of Canada. But it has no consistent legal definition and its application is becoming uncertain because it is increasingly defined in various laws. Generally, it applies to Indian bands or groups of bands and to Indian people. That’s how it is used in this script.
Inuit are the people of the arctic. Their primary legal relationship is with the federal government, similar to Indian people. But the Indian Act doesnot apply to Inuit people. Most Inuit people are now participants in modern treaty and land claims agreements that govern their unique interests. There are relatively few Inuit people in British Columbia and they are not covered further in this script.
The Metis are people of mixed aboriginal and non-aboriginal ancestry, but their precise legal definition is not certain. Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes three groups of Aboriginal peoples—Indians, Métis and Inuit peoples. The Supreme Court of Canada, in a case called R v. Powley, outlined three broad factors to identify Métis rights-holders:
- self-identification as a Métis individual;
- ancestral connection to an historic Métis community; and
- acceptance by a Métis community.
But there is still a lot of uncertainty.
How does criminal law apply to Aboriginal people?
Canada’s Criminal Code applies to all Aboriginal people. It applies to offences by Indians, both on and off reserve. But the Criminal Code tells judges to consider all reasonable alternatives to imprisonment, with particular attention to Aboriginal offenders. This is Parliament’s response to the fact that Aboriginal people are overrepresented in Canadian prisons. They may often have experienced disproportionate social issues throughout their lives. Judges must consider what are called Gladue principles when they sentence an Aboriginal offender (named after a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada case).
Some courthouses have a Native Court worker who can help Aboriginal people understand the court process, find a lawyer, and apply for legal aid. Aboriginal people who are convicted of an offence should ensure that their lawyer knows about their ancestry so they can tell the court before sentencing, normally, in the form of a Gladue Report. Many communities have Aboriginal restorative justice programs. Native Court workers and lawyers should check if these programs can help their clients.
How does family law apply to Aboriginal people?
The Family Law Act deals with parenting arrangements, child and spousal support, and division of matrimonial property after family breakdown. But the parts of this law dealing with real property do not apply on reserves. So there is a gap in the law dealing with the ownership, division, and possession of real property on reserves and what happens when a spousal relationship ends or a spouse dies.
The federal Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act responds to this gap in two ways. First, as of December 16, 2013, it allowed individual First Nations to make their own matrimonial real property laws. A list of First Nations that have done this is available on the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Second, as of December 16, 2014, the federal law has provisional (or temporary) rules that apply until First Nations make their own laws. The provisional rules allow for three types of orders: emergency protection orders; exclusive occupation orders; and orders on the division, ownership, and transfer of the interests or rights in real property under sections 29 to 33 of the federal law. If you live on reserve, and you need an order—especially an emergency order to protect yourself, your property, or your family—get legal advice.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has more on this topic. So does the Centre of Excellence for Matrimonial Real Property (hosted by the National Aboriginal Lands Managers Association).
Also, other rules may apply if an Indian band or First Nation has signed a modern treaty or has a matrimonial property regime under the First Nations Land Management Act.
The Child, Family and Community Service Act deals with child protection on or off reserve. Some First Nations have their own child protection agencies with authority from the province. This means the First Nation hires its own social workers and applies community standards, as far as this law allows. Most First Nation child protection agencies have authority on reserve only, but work closely with social workers from the Ministry of Children and Family Development to help families living off reserve. The Act also applies to First Nations with modern treaty agreements, subject to the agreements.
The key principles guiding all family laws are the best interests of the child plus protection and safety of the child. To decide on an Aboriginal child’s best interests and safety, courts look at the child’s community, extended family, and culture.
How does tax law differ for Indian people?
Many people mistakenly think that Aboriginal people do not pay income tax, GST or property tax. In fact, most Aboriginal people pay tax unless they are exempt under section 87 of the Indian Act. Under this section, the interest of a status Indian or band in reserve lands, and the personal property of a status Indian or band situated on a reserve, are tax exempt. As well, section 87 exempts from tax the goods and services bought by status Indians at businesses on Indian reserves. The exemption also includes goods bought elsewhere and delivered to the reserve.
Canadian courts have developed a series of “connecting factors” that must link a status Indian’s employment and investment income to the reserve for the income to be tax exempt. This “connecting factors test” is fact-specific and beyond the scope of this script. Because of the high levels of unemployment on most Indian reserves, these tax benefits are not as significant as some people think.
Like other levels of government, Indian bands can make property tax bylaws for people and businesses on reserves under section 83 of the Indian Act. Some Indian bands have a First Nations’ Tax (FNT) instead of GST. It can apply to alcohol, fuel and tobacco sold on reserve. Finally, modern treaties and land claims agreements cover all aspects of taxation.
How are Indian wills and estates regulated?
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada deals with the wills and estates of status Indians who are “ordinarily resident” on reserve when they die. The Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is responsible for several things. These include granting probate (deciding if a will is legally valid and then granting approval of it to the executor), appointing an administrator or executor to distribute the estate, and responding to anyone who challenges a will or complains about an administrator or executor.
The Indian Act has rules for transferring a person’s reserve property to heirs and beneficiaries. The Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has to approve all transfers of reserve property and a person who is not a member of the deceased person’s band may not be able to inherit the person’s house or land on a reserve.
The BC Supreme Court deals with the wills and estates of status Indians not “ordinarily resident” on reserve when they die and with all non-status Indians and other Aboriginal people. The BC Public Guardian and Trustee is also sometimes involved with these cases.
A will that is valid under the Indian Act may not be valid under BC provincial law because some parts, such as the requirement for a witness’s signature, may differ. So even a status Indian ordinarily resident on reserve should make sure a will meets the BC rules and the Indian Act. Check the scripts on Wills and Estates (numbers 176 to 180) for more information. So does the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada estates program at 604.666.3931 in Vancouver and 1.888.917.9977 elsewhere in BC.
What laws apply to Aboriginal rights, treaty rights, and human rights of Aboriginal people in BC?
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to every person in Canada, including Aboriginal people. But it applies only to laws and government actions, or the actions of agencies very closely connected to government, such as school boards and labour relations boards. The Charter will normally apply to band councils and other Aboriginal governments, but not always. Scripts 200, 230, and 232 have more on the Charter.
Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 is not in the Charter, but it gives constitutional protection to existing Aboriginal and treaty rights and to rights acquired through treaty and land claim negotiations. Since 1982, a lot of common law on identifying and defining aboriginal and treaty rights and how they fit with Canadian society has developed. These rights are site and fact-specific. They are protected from conflict with the rights and freedoms protected by the Charter (by section 25 of the Charter). To date, aboriginal rights are related mainly to the use of natural resources and aboriginal governance. Treaty rights are written into specific treaty documents.
Canadian Human Rights Act
The Canadian Human Rights Act applies to the federal government and businesses that it regulates, such as airlines and banks. The Canadian Human Rights Commission investigates complaints of discrimination and other violations of this law. Before the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended in 2008, it prevented challenges of federal or band government decisions made under the Indian Act. The 2008 amendments applied to the federal government immediately. First Nations had a 3-year transition period so the amendments applied to them as of 2011. Script 236 has more on human rights and discrimination.
British Columbia Human Rights Code
The BC Human Rights Code is similar to the federal Human Rights Act but it applies to the provincial government and businesses it regulates. The Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination by schools, stores, restaurants, and rental properties. The BC Human Rights Tribunal enforces the Code and has more information. As well, check script 236 and the BC Human Rights Coalition.
Deciding which human rights laws apply to cases involving Aboriginal people can be a complicated legal question. You should get legal advice about which laws apply to specific situations.
International Human Rights Law
Some Aboriginal people have relied on international human rights law to have their rights recognized. The main laws that have helped Aboriginals in Canada are the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These are available on the website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Human Rights Committee at the United Nations deals with discrimination complaints under international law but has no direct authority to enforce these laws in Canada. Canada has not signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Where can you find more information on Aboriginal law?
- Check the following websites:
- Confirm the status of individual First Nations in treaty negotiations with the BC Treaty Commission.
[updated February 2015]
The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Laurie Charlesworth, Susan Willis and Anja Brown.
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