What’s my line on legalized polygamy? Oh, I pretty much said it all back in 2004, in a column for Ezra Levant’s Western Standard. Headline: “It’s Closer Than They Think.”
Well, a mere half-decade down the slippery slope and here we are, with the marrying kind of Bountiful, B.C., headed for the Supreme Court of Canada. Five years ago, proponents of same-sex marriage went into full you-cannot-be-serious eye-rolling mode when naysayers warned that polygamy would be next. As I wrote in that Western Standard piece:
“Gay marriage, they assure us, is the merest amendment to traditional marriage, and once we’ve done that we’ll pull up the drawbridge.”
Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, the former Supreme Court justice, remains confident the drawbridge is firmly up. “Marriage is a union of two people, period,” she said in Quebec the other day. But it used to be a union of one man and one woman, period. And, if that period got kicked down the page to accommodate a comma and a subordinate clause, why shouldn’t it get kicked again? If the sex of the participants is no longer relevant, why should the number be?
Ah, well, says Mme L’Heureux-Dubé, polygamists don’t enjoy the same societal acceptance as gays. “I don’t see a parade of polygamists on Ste-Catherine Street,” observes the great jurist, marshalling the same dazzling quality of argument she used back in her days as the Supreme Court’s most outspoken activist on gay issues. A decade ago, she and Justice Michael Kirby, Australia’s most senior gay judge, traipsed from one gay-rights confab to another like the Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall of the international judicial cocktail circuit. But perhaps, back home in Canada, her ladyship ought to expand her excursions beyond the Ste-Catherine Street gay pride march. If you check in with, ahem, certain cultural communities in Canada, you will find polygamy not just “accepted” but government funded. It was confirmed last year that in the province of Ontario thousands of polygamous men receive welfare payments for each of their wives. There are many more takers for polygamy than there ever will be for gay marriage.
The Western world already accords de facto recognition to polygamy, in all kinds of areas. A couple of years back, Mohammed Anwar was stopped by police in Glasgow, Scotland, for doing 64 mph in a 30 mph zone. That would normally be enough for automatic disqualification from driving. But, appearing at Airdrie Sheriff’s Court, Mr. Anwar testified that he needed his car because he has one wife in Glasgow and another in Motherwell and he sleeps with them on alternate nights. Sheriff John C. Morris was persuaded by the Driving While Polygamous argument and ruled that the defendant could keep his driver’s licence. Congratulations! Make it one for my baby, one for my other baby, and one more for the road. Like Mr. Anwar, society is in the fast lane to second wives.
While Mme L’Heureux-Dubé’s objections may be sincere, the Government of Canada gives the distinct impression of going through the motions. Its objection to polygamy rests on the great wobbling blancmange of “Canadian values.” Polygamy is supposedly incompatible with “da Canadian value,” as M Chrétien used to call it. But surely da Canadian value is that we have no values. We value all values. To do otherwise would be profoundly un-Canadian. To be sure, there are sometimes theoretical contradictions between, say, women’s rights, on the one hand, and, on the other, arranged cousin marriages. But that’s all the more reason to give the likes of Chief Commissar Barbara Hall and her Ontario “Human Rights” Commission ever more powers to regulate ever more aspects of life in this blessed utopia. One assumes a so-called “conservative” government is standing its ground on the eternally shifting, whispering sands of “Canadian values” only as a little comic relief before the inevitable Supreme Court ruling.
Meanwhile, my esteemed colleague Andrew Coyne, doing his Mister Reasonable shtick, has dismissed the whole polygamy thing as an absurd distraction by the flailing Tories: “We may be spending at all-time record levels. We may be running $40-billion deficits, and bailing out auto companies, and ditching across-the-board tax cuts in favour of dozens of little social-engineering tax credits. We may have abandoned everything we ever stood for on Afghanistan, on Quebec, on corporate welfare, on foreign investment . . . But we’ll still protect you from a lot of imaginary threats like polygamy.”
Call me a hopeless Pollyanna, but I’d like to think a functioning G7 government could enact a coherent economic policy while still finding time to oppose polygamy. Still, to take Andrew’s broader argument, he’s in favour of decriminalization of plural marriage: after all, we let a chap screw as many women as he wants. What’s the big deal if he wants to marry them all? But in Canada nothing occurs in isolation. Take those multi-spousal welfare benefits in Ontario. In fairness to your big-time polygamist in Yemen or Waziristan, he has to do it on his own dime. If he wants to get the taxpayer to pick up the tab, he has to hop a flight to Toronto. East is east and west is west, and these days when the twain meet you usually get the worst of both worlds, of which government-funded polygamy would appear to be a near parodic example. But, in a Canada where common-law relationships already enjoy all but full equality with marriage, it’s easy to foresee the court decisions that would follow—on benefits, on “human rights” cases, on family-reunification immigration hearings. An insignificant number of gay couples would have greased the skids for a far larger cohort of heterosexual triples and quadruples. Indeed, for some polygamy proponents, that’s the point. A couple of years back, the Toronto Star quoted Martha Bailey advocating polygamy on economic grounds: “Stressing ‘the multicultural nature of Canadian society,’ Bailey claims that Canada has an urgent practical need for more Muslim immigrants. If Canada can just ‘expand the pool of applicants,’ says Bailey, it just may win ‘the global competition for highly skilled immigrants.’ ”
I’m not myself persuaded that there’s any correlation between polygamy and “skills,” but it’s easy to see the appeal of such shameless multiculti pandering at the Supreme Court. Since this magazine and I were ensnared in the “human rights” machinery, I’ve come to regard Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as—what’s the legal term?—oh, yeah, a worthless piece of crap. The quiet lifers will doubtless coo that, after this one minor retreat, we’ll be able to hold the line. But, to return to the elusive pursuit of “da Canadian value,” if there is a core Canadian value, it’s that there is no line, and nothing to hold. You can hold a gay wedding, you can hold a polygamous marriage, you can hold your child bride’s clitoridectomy party, but you can’t hold the line.
So what? We uptight squares just need to get with the beat. A couple of years ago, Nicole Langlois of the London Free Press went to see Brokeback Mountain, the Oscar-winning gay cowboy movie, and found herself oddly distracted. “I watched it—the lush, majestic beauty of mountains and streams; the struggle and surrender between the two men,” gushed Miss Langlois, “and I thought of Stephen Harper.”
Each to her own. When I saw Brokeback Mountain, Stephen Harper was the last thing on my mind. At the moment of “struggle and surrender between the two men,” I don’t remember looking at Jake Gyllenhaal and thinking, “The West wants in.” But to Miss Langlois, brooding on the Prime Minister, the scene underlined “how truly powerless he is . . . against the rising tide of cultural acceptance for gays.”
Rising tides lift all kinds of boats: if we’re “redefining marriage,” gay nuptials will be the least of it. Last year, Aly Hindy, a Scarborough imam, told the Toronto Star that he’d performed 30 polygamous marriages just in the last few weeks. Madame L’Heureux-Dubé and her fellow progressives think that women’s rights and gay rights are like the internal combustion engine or the jet plane—that once you’ve invented them they can’t be un-invented. Yet tides rise, and then ebb. Forty years ago Nigeria lived under English common law. Now half of it lives under sharia, and the other half’s feeling the heat. Go back to Martha Bailey’s pitch for immigrants: how many highly skilled polygamists and their legions of wives have to emigrate to Canada before “the rising tide of cultural acceptance for gays” begins to ebb?
We could use some “Canadian values” right now. As it is, multiculturalism has stripped us even of the vocabulary to argue against obvious provocations. If by “Canadian values,” you mean a half-millennium of settlement and constitutional evolution, forget it: you lost. But, if by “Canadian values,” you mean the already cobwebbed disco-era Trudeaupian mumbo-jumbo, make the most of it: it’s a moment, and moments pass. And you might not like what follows.