The day may not be far off when a Cree man can live with a non-Cree man in a common-law marriage in Iyiyuuschii without the band council’s consent.
That would be the impact of Bill C-23, Ottawa’s legislation on same-sex benefits. The bill has been adopted by Parliament and is awaiting Senate approval.
Bill C-23 was introduced because of a Supreme Court ruling last year that said gay people have the same rights as heterosexuals.
First Nations aren’t exempt from the law. Ottawa has promised to amend the Cree-Naskapi Act to force bands to comply with the changes. Mixed-race couples now have the right to live together in the communities only if they are heterosexual.
That has Naskapi officials upset. The Naskapi have opposed the law in a brief to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and also plan to take their concerns to the Senate.
It’s not that the Naskapi are against gay rights, said Johnny Mameamskum, director-general of the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach. The problem is that Ottawa is amending the act without Naskapi or Cree consent. He noted that the Naskapi have been trying to amend the act themselves for 14 years for other reasons without any progress.
“I am not anti-homosexual,” said Mameamskum. “What we are against is the amendment to the Cree-Naskapi Act. Under the law, any amendments need the consent of all parties.”
He said a unilateral change to the act would “set a precedent for other First Nations across Canada” allowing their treaties to be unilaterally changed, too.
Mameamskum acknowledged, however, that some Naskapi are simply against gay marriages. “There would be concern from Elders because for biblical reasons this is a taboo,” he said.
The Grand Council of the Crees has decided not to get involved in the issue because it wants to concentrate on the Cree forestry campaign. But a Grand Council official praised the Naskapi protests: “The Naskapi are fighting the fight that needs to be fought.”
The official said Indian Affairs and Justice officials are now privately promising that the bill will not be applied to the Crees and Naskapi without discussions.
“We’re afraid that in the future they would make other changes to the treaty without seeking our consent,” he said. “There is a small number of people affected. There is no real crisis here. There isn’t any clamour from the communities or even a letter raising this as an issue.” The official said Crees have to discuss the question first before any changes are made. “There are certainly Crees who would have trouble with same-sex marriages. The Pentecostals would certainly never go for that,” he said.
Others think gay marriages are simply inevitable. “We knew inevitably this was going to come,” said Nemaska Chief George Wapachee, who believes Crees would be tolerant of any changes. “Some Elders might have concerns. But on the whole, it’s part of the whole changing times. We have to keep up with it”