Indigenous Families

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Aboriginal people who are dealing with a family law problem may face some particular issues. Some of them involve cultural concerns while others stem from the federal government's Indian Act. This section addresses these issues briefly. However, for more complete information I strongly encourage you to consult with a family law lawyer who has expertise in Aboriginal legal issues.

This section looks at issues specific to Aboriginal people that relate to the care and control of children, calculating the amount of child and spousal support payments, and dividing family property and family debt.

The care of children

All of the usual factors that govern the court's consideration of issues involving the care and control of children apply to the care and control of Aboriginal children, whether the child's ancestry comes from one parent or from both. In addition to the usual factors, however, the court will also look at a few other issues related to the child's Aboriginal heritage.

Custody under the Divorce Act

In addition to the usual factors governing an award of child custody under section 16 of the Divorce Act, the court must also take into consideration a child's Aboriginal heritage when making a decision about custody. This is not expressly set out anywhere in the legislation, but past cases have decided that a child's Aboriginal heritage should be considered as part of the general best interests of the child test.

This principle was established by the Supreme Court of Canada in D.H. v. D.M., [1999] 1 S.C.R. 761. The court said that "the trial judge had given careful attention to the aboriginal ancestry of [the child], together with all the other factors relevant to [the child's] best interests, and that there was no error in his decision".

In another ruling, Van de Perre v. Edwards, 2001 SCC 60, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that:

  • racial identity is but one factor that may be considered in determining someone's personal identity,
  • the relevancy of this factor depends on the context, and
  • all factors must be considered pragmatically, as different situations and different philosophies require an individual analysis on the basis of reliable evidence.

Guardianship under the Family Law Act

In addition to the usual rules dealing with guardianship under the Family Law Act, members of Canada's First Nations are subject to an additional and unwelcome burden under the federal Indian Act, which allows the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to appoint a person to be the guardian of the child. You should expect that this authority will only be exercised when both parents die without leaving a will that passes guardianship to some other person, or when there are serious concerns about the parents' ability to properly care for the child.

Where there is an application for guardianship of a treaty First Nation child in a family law court proceeding, under sections 208 and 209 of the Family Law Act:

  • the treat First Nation's government must be served with notice of the application,
  • the treaty First Nation government has standing in the court proceeding, and
  • the court must consider the laws and customs of the treaty First Nation in making its decision.

(To have standing means, in legal terms, that the court recognizes your right to be heard and bring claims based upon your stake in the outcome of a legal proceeding.)

Section 208 applies to Nisga'a children; section 209 deals with other treaty First Nation children and says this:

(1) If an application for guardianship is made respecting a treaty first nation child and the final agreement of the treaty first nation to which the child belongs provides for it, the treaty first nation

(a) must be served with notice of the proceeding, and

(b) has standing in the proceeding.

(2) In a proceeding to which subsection (1) applies, the court must consider, in addition to any other matters it is required by law to consider and subject to any limits or conditions set out in the final agreement, any evidence or representations respecting the laws and customs of the treaty first nation.

Section 29.1 of the provincial Interpretation Act defines the term "treaty first nation". The nations that currently meet this definition are the Tsawwassen First Nation and the Maa-nulth First Nations.

Remember, the only time an application must be made for guardianship is where a person, including a parent:

  • does not meet the general conditions for being a child's guardian under section 39 of the Family Law Act, and
  • has not been appointed as a guardian by a guardian's will or a Form 2 Appointment under the Family Law Act Regulation.

Access, parenting time and contact

The concerns around a child's Aboriginal ancestry are the same whether determining custody under the Divorce Act or determining access, parenting time and contact under the Family Law Act. This is especially important where one of the parents is not Aboriginal.

Aboriginal children have the right to keep a connection to their culture and heritage. This may influence the parenting time schedule or contact that an Aboriginal parent has, and affect where a non-Aboriginal parent may exercise parenting time or contact. The fact that a child has Aboriginal ancestry may also result in the court extending contact to a third party, such as an elder or another family member who shares the Aboriginal ancestry with the child, and who will keep the child in touch with their culture.

If a non-Aboriginal parent or a non-band member parent tries to exercise access to a child living on a reserve, the band may restrict that parent's ability to go onto the reserve to see the child. While this doesn't happen a great deal, the usual solution is for the parent trying to exercise access to ensure that the access order or agreement requires the other parent to take the child off the reserve for access visits.

Child support and spousal support

Exactly the same rules apply to Aboriginal parents as apply to non-Aboriginal parents when it comes to paying child support and spousal support.

There is, however, one significant issue about the calculation of income for the purposes of support calculations. Aboriginal people who qualify as status Indians under the federal Indian Act and who work on a reserve may not be required to pay income tax. Because the Child Support Guidelines are based on the assumption that the payor of child support is also paying income tax, the standard method of calculating income under the Guidelines would give a distorted result for payors who work on a reserve and do not pay income tax.

Under section 19(1)(b) of the Guidelines, a tax-exempt payor may have their income grossed up to account for this tax advantage. The grossing-up process essentially involves figuring out how much money a taxed payor would have to earn to have the same amount as a tax-exempt person's income, once income taxes are taken off.

Think of it like this:

Say a taxed payor makes a gross income of $40,000 per year. This is the taxed payor's income for the purposes of the Guidelines. Now, the taxed payor also pays taxes on that income, so their net income might really be about $30,000.

A tax-exempt payor making $40,000, on the other hand, would actually keep the whole $40,000 since no income taxes are paid on the $40,000. This, according to the Guidelines, is unfair, and the tax-exempt payor's income should be re-calculated upwards.

Under the Guidelines, the tax-exempt payor must calculate support payments using a higher income figure than they are actually paid. The higher income figure would be whatever a taxed payor would need to earn to have an after-tax income of $40,000. Say a taxed payor would have to earn $55,000 to have a net income of $40,000. In this example, the tax-exempt payor's income is then set at $55,000 for the purposes of calculating child support using the Guidelines.

Grossing-up a payor's income is intended to ensure that the children benefit from the amount of support available based on a gross income equivalent to what a taxed payor would have to earn to have the same net income.

The same sort of grossing-up process will apply when determining how much spousal support a tax-exempt payor should have to pay, particularly if the amount payable is being determined using the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines. The Advisory Guidelines use the same approach to calculate income as the Child Support Guidelines.

Family property and family debt

Dividing property can be a bit of a problem for Aboriginal spouses when real property on a reserve is involved.

In a nutshell, the Constitution Act gives the federal government exclusive authority over laws relating to First Nations property and reserve lands. This means the provincial governments cannot pass laws dealing with First Nations property or their lands. Accordingly, in British Columbia, the Family Law Act can't be used to divide an interest in real property on reserve lands. Making matters worse, people living on a reserve generally don't own their property the way that off-reserve property can be owned. The only kind of ownership individuals on reserve lands can have is a Certificate of Possession that gives the owner the right to occupy the land, but not the legal title to that land.

If a treaty First Nation has negotiated the right to dispose of reserve lands, the rules are a bit different and the court may be able to make orders about real property on reserve lands under the Family Law Act. Section 210 of the Family Law Act says this:

(1) If provided for by the final agreement of a treaty first nation, the treaty first nation has standing in a proceeding under Part 5, in which

(a) the treaty first nation is entitled under its final agreement to make laws restricting alienation of its treaty lands,

(b) a parcel of its treaty lands is at issue, and

(c) at least one spouse is a treaty first nation member of the treaty first nation.

(2) In a proceeding to which subsection (1) applies, the Supreme Court must consider, among other matters, any evidence or representations respecting the applicable treaty first nation's laws restricting alienation of its treaty lands.

(3) The participation of a treaty first nation in a proceeding to which subsection (1) applies must be in accordance with the Supreme Court Family Rules and does not affect the court's ability to control the court's process.

These are the general rules about family property and the court's authority under the Family Law Act:

  • Financial Assets: Cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and whatnot are called moveable property. The court can deal with these sorts of assets if they are not situated on reserve lands.
  • Real Property: Property and structures on reserve lands are immovable property. The court cannot order the transfer of immovable property, but it can deal with other assets, like moveable property, to compensate a spouse for an interest in property which the court cannot deal with.
  • Certificates of Possession: The court generally cannot deal with real property located on a reserve, however, the bulk of real property located within reserve lands is not "owned" the way a house off-reserve can be. People holding real property on reserve lands are generally only allowed to have and use the land by way of a Certificate of Possession. Since Certificates of Possession are dispensed under the authority of the federal government, the court cannot make an order for the transfer of the Certificate under the Family Law Act. The spouse who has the Certificate will usually have to compensate the other spouse for their interest in the Certificate, providing that the Certificate can be shown to have a value.
  • Exclusive Use of Property: Section 90 of the Family Law Act allows someone to apply for an order giving them exclusive use of the family home, but this section does not apply to family homes located on reserve lands.

Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act

In December 2013, the Federal Government proclaimed a new law, the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act. This act finally provided a process for dealing with family homes on a reserve. It applies:

  • during a relationship between "married spouses" or "common-law partners" (as the federal act refers to unmarried spouses),
  • after that relationship breaks down, or
  • when one of them dies.

The act is divided into two parts. The first part of the act provides a mechanism for First Nations to enact laws respecting homes on a reserve. This part of the act has been in force since December 16, 2013.

The second part of the act came into force a year later on December 16, 2014, and provides rules to deal with homes on a reserve until such time as a First Nation opts to enact its own laws to deal with homes on its reserve.

Generally, this law applies to married couples and common-law spouses living on a reserve, where at least one of them is a First Nation band member or First Nation person entitled to be a band member, or a status Indian whose First Nation has not opted to take over responsibility for the management and control of their reserve lands and resources under the First Nations Land Management Act or manage their lands pursuant to a self-government agreement.

Division of the value and interests or rights to the family home

The act sets out that spouses or common-law partners are entitled to one half of the value of the interest or right that either of them holds in the family home in the event of relationship breakdown or death of one of the spouses.

Sections 28 and 34 of the act outline the details on how value of the family home is to be determined. It takes into consideration the appreciation in value that may have occurred during the relationship, contributions made by each spouse, and any debts or liabilities; the value of the family home and is typically based on the amount that a buyer would reasonably be expected to pay for comparable interests.

Emergency protection orders

While the act provides that designated judges have the power to make emergency protection orders, the Province of British Columbia has decided not to designate any judges under the act at this time. Currently, the only protection orders available are those made under section 183 of the Family Law Act, which are available to people both on and off a reserve. See the chapter on Family Violence for a discussion of protection orders and other laws to protect people at risk of domestic violence.

Death of a spouse or common-law partner

Section 14 of the act provides that a spouse or common-law partner who does not hold a right or interest in the family home on the reserve can stay in the home for a period of 180 days after the day their spouse or common-law partner died. The surviving spouse does not need to be Aboriginal to benefit from this section.

Getting legal help

This section is only a brief sketch of some of the special issues that Aboriginal people might have to deal with in the course of a family law dispute. If you have a problem touching on one of these areas, you should get advice from a lawyer.

You may be able to get legal help from the Legal Services Society's Aboriginal band outreach program or an Aboriginal community legal worker. Look for these agencies on using the HelpMap feature to find help near to where you are.

Resources and links




This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Rhaea Bailey, November 29, 2018.

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