If the polygamists prevail - Macleans.ca

If the polygamists prevail

Will it be the end of marriage as we know it?


If the polygamists prevail

When questions of morality arise, “slippery slope” arguments follow close at heel. No surprise, then, that fear ran wild this morning that Canada’s criminal prohibition of polygamy will soon fall to a constitutional challenge—our weakness for religious freedom being what it is.

Then what? A nationwide rash of multi-spouse relationships? Half-siblings for everyone? Chaos in the family courts? Anarchy?

None of the above, actually. It is true that B.C.’s attorney general has decided to put long-dormant criminal laws to the test by laying charges against Winston Blackmore for running the equivalent of a wife farm in the province’s southeastern corner. And Wally Oppal has a point about keeping laws on the books you never plan to use: “If that section is invalid by virtue of freedom of religion,” he said, “we should let some court decide that.”

Still, there’s no guarantee Blackmore’s lawyers would win a charter challenge on faith-based grounds. They might convince a judge that Section 293 of the Criminal Code treads on religious freedoms. But any such argument necessarily opens the door to debate about potential harm to those inside the communities, and whether, given the risks, keeping polygamy criminal is a reasonable limit on liberty. “You bring in the question of what kind of social construct this is, in that religious community,” notes Lorraine Weinrib, a constitutional law professor at the University of Toronto who follows marriage cases closely. “As I understand it, one of the reasons they did go forward with [criminal charges] is that they have a lot of testimony from women who have left these communities.”

Even if Section 293 falls—as many fear it will—that in no way points to the end of marriage law as we know it, say other experts. In Canada, marriage will remain legally defined as a union between two people (the gender-neutral phrasing, recall, comes courtesy of court decisions on same-sex marriage). One option for the state, says Annalise Acorn, a constitutional law professor at the University of Alberta, is to forget the Criminal Code and stick by the civil law, ignoring whatever unions the Blackmores of this world consecrate, fighting tooth and nail in the courts to protect the institution as currently defined.

If challenged, the Crown has plenty of legal ammunition with which to protect the law, namely: that polygamy as practised in Bountiful, B.C. and almost anywhere else in the world militates against the notion of gender equality; that children in polygamous communities may be exposed to harm; that allowing it would make common law as it relates to marriage, divorce, child custody, taxation and property impracticable.

Granted, communities like Bountiful might continue unscathed in this scenario. But if the goal is to protect the status quo, we’d be fools to forget how rare such cases are. Save for a bigamy charge or two-and immigration cases involving polygamists from other countries-there is almost nothing on the books presaging the case against Blackmore (James Oler, another resident of Bountiful, was also charged this week with one count of practising polygamy). That might be because polygamy is illegal. But it’s more likely because it doesn’t make sense from a legal or social standpoint. None of the legal benefits of marriage flow to a second, third or fourth spouse. Most Canadian women cannot imagine themselves as one of several wives, and are well aware of their right to simply walk away.

In other words, monogamous marriage works—however shabbily some of us practise it. The great irony, notes Acorn, lies in the role same-sex marriage advocates played in making that point. Remember, if you will, the whispered fears of gay marriage obliterating marriage law, swinging open the door to polygamy and other unintended consequences. “In those cases, the value of monogamy was front and centre in the arguments in favour of same-sex marriage,” says Acorn.

Some slopes, it turns out, are not as slippery as they look.


If the polygamists prevail

  1. Hi

    in 1999, My husband, a Muslim, remarried another woman, 15 years his junior as a result of an office romance in Dubai, UAE as his religion permitted him to.

    I chose to walk away. As a result, he took my two children away from me …..aged 9 & 10 at the time and made sure I do not see them ever again as revenge for fighting for my rights as a mother and a betrayed wife.

    I lost my husband, Home, children, joint savings etc etc as a result of wanting to live with dignity.

    Help and save the institution of Monogamy in marriage as a lot of people get hurt and some selfish humans enjoy the benefits of Polygamy.

    If this law is changed, can men accept that a Single Woman have and keep several husbands at the same time?

    • Terrible tale.
      Very devastating for you.
      I was wondering about laws on polyandry.

      • Well, polyandry is technically a form of polygamy. The most common form of polygamy (a man with multiple wives) is more specifically referred to polygyny.

        One thing that seems to be lost in this debate is that, from my understanding, this is not about state recognized marriage. So, this is NOT a similar debate to same-sex marriage. It is more like same-sex cohabitation in a committed, marriage-like relationship.

        I think this law is unnecessary, since the state would still not be sanctioning polygamous marriage if the law did not exist. If consenting adults want to live in a “marriage-like” relationship with multiple people–and there is no abuse occurring–who are we to tell people not to? I am against state sanctioned polygamous marriage simply because I think it will be an unmanageable legal minefield, but it’s an informal arrangement that is unrecognized by the state, then I don’t really care.

        • Willing to bet you’re a middle aged guy, right?

    • If one parent is absolutely determined to hide the children from the other it can be very dificult for the other to see them. If they are willing to jump ship to a country like the UAE, it can be next to impossible. As noted above, it must be extremely upsetting.

      But throwing polygamists in jail in Canada won’t actually solve that problem.

    • Just because one situation turned out badly, this does not mean that every situation would turn out badly. Under the right circumstances, polyamourous relationships can actually be healthy, stable, and happy and, under the wrong circumstances, monogamous relationships can be a complete nightmare.

    • “Selfish humans” benefitting at the expense of their multiple wives? why don’t you just say “selfish men”? Surely it far more accurate, isn’t it? I am not aware of the “multiple husband syndrome” having afflicted our communities as yet. These exploitative men belong in other societies where women are “property” and can be disposed of, and loved, as often as their Masters wish. You tube has many examples of how countries where polygamy is practiced treat girls (as young as 9!) and women if they fail to obey their husband. Canadian immigration remains the refuge of these polygamists who come here and exploit our social welfare and healthcare benefits and live as “separated” or “single” while their 3 or 4 wives collect disability and welfare and all the oher benefits….It’s a sham and a cancer that is growing. What do you expect if Bountiful is practiced on the street where you live in major Canadian cities and you don’t even know it!

  2. There’s no law preventing sexual intimacy with as many people as one wants, so why would one who wants to have multiple partners bother to marry? Does Blackmore’s religion *require* him have sex only within marriage?

  3. This is really going to depend on both the public relations effort by the people of Bountiful, as well as how they frame this religious discrimination debate.

    The biggest argument for religious discrimination, is that I can live in a household of four sexual partners, and so long as everyone was a consenting adult, we wouldn’t have any problems with the authorities. Why? Because as a non religious person, what I would be doing would not be considered polygamy, but simply some sort of hedonistic lifestyle.

    What the authorities have done here, is charge them with a crime, but they will inculcate other crimes. Long has there been allegations and rumors of coersion and sexual abuse, but the authorities cannot put together a viable case against anyone. So what do they do? Go after the accused with perhaps the oldest, most untested and arcane law on the books, one that is surely set up to fail.

    When this exercise is said and done, Polygamy will be legal, and the government will have spent millions of dollars prosecuting otherwise law abiding citizens.

    • “I can live in a household of four sexual partners, and so long as everyone was a consenting adult . . . what I would be doing would not be considered polygamy, but simply some sort of hedonistic lifestyle.”

      Not, alas, that it applies to me, but is this actually true? I would have thought that common-law marriage considerations would kick in at a certain point. If you’re living in a bohemian Arcadia with four wives, all consenting & for that matter older than you, for over a year, but not Church Married, are you common-law married to a) one of them b) all of them? If the latter, are you technically a polygamist?

      • When defining spouse for purposes of support, statutes usually make it clear they are talking about two people (the Ontario Family Law Act certainly does). And when determining if somebody is common law, the cases have looked at the exclusivity of the relationship as a strong indicator. It has worked so far because the situation of long-term polygamy has never come up when trying to decide if a couple is common law. it would make for an interesting case.

        • I’ll try to get on it.

          • In the bohemian-Arcadia-many-wives-older-than-me sense, not the renegade-Mormon-creepy sense, I mean.

        • As far as I know that is also an issue which has never come up, although it would be very interesting to be proven wrong!

          • It certainly seems that a multiple-spouse (whatever gender) Arcadia scenario would end up in family court quite quickly; but then I can’t say that I’ve encountered any situations like that in real life, as opposed to novels about Paris in the 1920’s.

            One of the rather disconcerting things about this Bountiful situation, and polygamy of that sort in general, is that it makes me wonder about human societies of deep prehistory, i.e. pre-agricultural. We tend to imagine an Adam-and-Eve situation everywhere, i.e. monogamous harmony on the heath, but I now I’m starting to wonder / shudder a bit at what our ancestors were like, marriage-wise. Anthropologists, please weigh in.

      • Maybe they’re all “roommates with benefits.” But geez, I hope tubes and-or ducts are tied off. Parent-teacher night would be awkward, to say the least…

        • @Jack M.:

          Our best evidence and educated guesswork regarding human marriage patterns suggest serial monogamy was probably the dominant form.

          For most of human history, marriage was viewed as much as – if not more – an economic arrangement than a romantic or emotional one. Each gender had their specific labour roles, and as such it was pretty difficult for any single man or woman to hold up his or her ‘end of the deal’ with multiple spouses.

          Also, plain old demographics tend to favour monogamy.

          For foraging societies in particular (hunters and gatherers, which all humans were for tens of thousands of years), there’s good reason to think that divorce was rather common and not as fraught with emotional turmoil as we tend to make it.

          Now, there are many,many exceptions, but in the broadest strokes most humans were serial monogamists, though those marriages were more functional than expressive in nature.

          • Thanks, Sean, that’s very interesting & informative.

            Do I understand rightly that one of the ways we, and our primate kin, differ from other mammals is in the year-round character of female fertility? I.e. women (and chimpanzee ladies) can conceive at any season, not just in a short breeding window in the spring (or whenever it may be). It strikes me — and I’m totally uninformed, as I mentioned — that this would mean that Alpha-Wolf polygyny would be much, much harder to maintain: the Alpha Wolf only needs to monopolise the female wolves briefly, whereas an Alpha Primate would have to do so continually.

          • Thanks Jack! (I can’t seem to embed my second reply after yours)

            Actually, female chimps have a yearly estrus (period of heat) that lasts something like 30 days. Bonobos are probably the closest non-human primates in terms of year-round potential fertility (though I’m not much of an expert in primatology, so there may be others I’m unaware of). Bonobos also have sex for social (i.e. non-reproductive) reasons, like humans. Bonobos do have alpha males, of a sort, though they also have alpha females who may even dominate the males (Bonobo society is pretty confusing, and seems as titilating to researchers as a 1970s bath house).

            From an evolutionary perspective, I’d be cautious about placing too much causality on fertility. A lack of estrus probably contributes to monogamy, but then lots of birds are monogamous in spite of a limited yearly period of fertility. The incredible time investment in raising our offspring, compared to other animals, may be just as important.

            Also, the social dimension of human life has been our standout evolutionary ‘trick’ (tools too, but that’s another post), and marriage patterns need to be considered in that light (alliances between bands of foragers are cemented via the ‘exchange’ of spouses, as one example). It’s also of potential relevance to note that our best evidence suggests that pre-agricultural humans were much more egalitarian than we are today, including relations between genders. Monogamy likely works better in such a social arrangement.

            You’re very right about the ‘work’ involved in polygamous marriage – it requires a great expenditure of energy and resources by the individual maintaining multiple spouses (I know I’m overgeneralizing a bit).

            Though I hear polygamy might work well in Surf City, if Jan and Dean are to be believed.

          • Serial monogamy purpots to provide a nurturing environment for children. Yet this is not always true. Many men marry women with children or have children with such women so they can sexually abuse their little girls or boys undetected by authorities! What a cover for their child molester’s nature. And what better place than Bountiful to practice child sexual abuse–with impunity. The laws are a farce. Freedom of religious expression is not an absolute right under the Charter. And “gender equality” as above stated and “women’s rights are Human rights (as HIllary Clinton said in Bejing’s UN Conference back in ’96. I am surprised that women’s organizations have remained mum on this cancerous topic. Best to cauterize it via a strong repudiation by the Supreme Court and limit the “rights” of those who exploit sexually and emotionally children and women. Wife-farming should be banned once and for all. Consensual sexual arrangements between adults are none of our business but when you bring “marriage” into the picture and children, the state has to enter the picture and ensure that their human rights are protected. And no religious fanatic, muslim or christian should be allowed to get away with modern-day slavery as they do in Bountiful’s wife-farming and child-producing farms. It’s about time Blackmore stops getting his sexual favors from the children at his farm house and is prosecuted. Polygamous relationships that are consensual is not our business. But when these religious freaks start farming wives and producing kids away from society’s eyes, you are asking for more traumatized children who’ll grow up to be damaged adults costing society billions of dollars in therapy! Put Blackmore in jail, confiscate his property, distribute to the wives and children, and get his naive lwomen off to a rehab centre to learn their rights. Let’s hope our Supreme Court doesn’t get warm fuzzies for polygamist child molesters at the cost of women’s rights.

  4. I don’t understand how polygamy can be disallowed if same-sex marriage is allowed. If one woman-one man is no longer required, why is a 1:1 required at all? I honestly don’t get on what grounds it can be disallowed provided everybody is a consenting adult.

    (Please don’t be respond by bashing your perception of my moral / social / religious views…

    I am genuinely interested in how this circle can be squared!)

    • Welcome to the slippery-slope argument that was widely mocked during the same-sex debate, Claude. Walk carefully.

      • maybe that slippery slope started when interracial marriages were allowed? please.

        • Claude – I can’t think of a good legal argument against polygamy, and frankly, if the individuals are all consenting I can’t think of a great moral argument against it either – although I’m certainly not an advocate.

    • As Mrs. Acorn hints, the issues are different and same-sex marriage might actually provide evidence against the legality of polygamy.

      When the courts looked at the issue, it had to be proven that the state was giving a benefit to straight couples and denying the same right to gay couples. They looked at gay and straight couples and found that the differences between them were either discriminatory, irrelevant or both. And one of those differences was the exclusive nature of the relationship – society offers couples a chance to celebrate their devotion for each other by giving them the option of marriage. (Sure it doesn’t always work out that way, but now all orientations can abuse it equally – the very essence of non-discrimination). In short, the courts can easily rule that while gay people were being excluded from a right that straight people had, polygamists are trying to exercise a right that no one has.

      Another interesting thing to note. When the gay rights case was heard before the supreme court, there were religious groups arguing in FAVOUR of gay marriage. They claimed their religious rights were being violated because they were not allowed to form same sex marriages that would give state recognition. They LOST. So the closest caselaw on topic hints that there is no religious right to alter the definition of marriage. That doesn’t mean you can send polygamists to jail, but it might just mean they can’t guarantee themselves automatic legal recognition for their marriages.

      • That’s very interesting.

    • Same-sex marriage was never ‘illegal’, it just didn’t fit the provincial statutes on marriage, i.e. one man one woman. The statues go on to say ‘to the exclusion of all others’. One might think that this would also not make polygamy ‘illegal’. However, as per s. 293 of the Canada Criminal Code, polygamy is an indictable offence punishable to imprisonment for no longer than 5 years.

      This law has been on the books since before confederation. In the 1800s, polygamist Mormons came to Canada to evade American polygamy laws. Because Aboriginals were allowed to retain their marriage and divorce customs, Mormons believed that they would be left alone as well. Pre-Confederation governments fought hard to instill monogamous marriage in the colony making British ideals of monogamy law.

      While it is true that Canada has never indicted polygamists, news of abuses has finally forced their hand. Blackmore’s claim of religious freedom to practice polygamy should not stand because of the Charter disclaimer of being ‘prescribed by law’. As polygamy is prescribed by law, Blackmore and others like him are in contravention.

      • This is not exactly true. Gay sex was in fact a crime until Trudeau legalized it. And if merely passing a statute placed the legal limitations you suggest in the last clause, the Charter would be a weak document indeed.

    • Where’s the slippery slope? The law states marriage is between two adults. Not 3 or 4….The crap about “consenting adults” here is a pretex for the religious nutwingers to get away with their hurtful practices and self-gratification at the expense of their “wives” and kids who’ll grow up to be confused and damaged and will hurt others in return. is this what we want for our society?

  5. Claude, I don’t understand it either.

    What is the meaning of marriage?

    Is marriage about love between two people?

    Perhaps love between two people seems to have been the main focus when shifting over to SSM but polygamy is also about love between two people.

    Is marriage about biological offspring?

    No, it cannot, because biological offspring cannot be part of SSM. But the biological offspring is a real possibility for polygamists.

    Is marriage about the better good of a society?

    Not any longer if marriage has no defined meaning any longer. The meaning of marriage has been opened up as far as to be a catchphrase for any union of the moment. But if love between partners would last forever there would be no need for marriage at all. It is precisely for the fact that love is so fickle that marriage between one man and one woman had been instituted, for the well being of the offspring could not do well within bounds of fickleness.

    But I quess we’re past that point now. SSM has looked after that. I am not in favour of polygamy, but I think it is no worse, perhaps better, than SSM.

    • Historically, marriage was about property, i.e. legitimacy. Before writing, there were no wills, so it was vital that inheritance be predetermined. Clans gathering to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of one and the son of another were in effect testifying that the offspring would be backed up by both clans in future.

      I’d be interested to know if monogamy or polygamy is the older custom. Our monogamy is Roman in origin, for sure; but what was the situation in the rest of the world, including pre-Roman Europe?

      • Check out polyandry in Wikipedia for a brief anthropological explaination.

        • Thanks for the tip, but it’s more a classification than a history of the institution, esp. in Europe; ditto for polygyny. Maybe we just don’t know that much about prehistoric marriage.

  6. “When the gay rights case was heard before the supreme court”

    When was that, Mike T ????? I think you’re making it up as you go.

    • There was a reference case to the Supreme Court in 2004. It was in, like, all the papers.

      (The only reason I will accept criticism on that point is that there has been more than one gay rights cases before the Supreme Court (such as M v. H), but an alert reader should have been able to figure out which one I meant.)

    • Franklin and Franklin are a COUPLE. Don’t see polygamy angle here unless social myopia has set in to obscure perspective….What’s wrong with their “marriage” It’s 2 consenting adults of hte same sex! Blackmore, on the other hand, has multiple women and children to use and abuse…

      • Either meme didn’t quite read my first ever entry at Blog Central, or s/he is employiong a level of satirical rhetoric that missed me by miles and– uh, kilometres and kilometres. How do you get to Franklin and Franklin, meme?

  7. Reference case? you mean the one in which the government had asked for the reference?

    • That’s the one.

  8. At some point we are going to have to ask ourselves what exactly society gains by recognizing certain sexual unions legally. Once we answer that question, we can determine which unions qualify. Until then, this is all just an emotional reaction rather than a reasoned one (this article included).

    • I agree. If polygamy were to be taken off the books and regulated like others marriages there would be less chance of abuses towards the partners and children. As it stands, because these marriages are not seen to be legal, unhappy partners have no recourse to divorce and child support laws in this country.

      One of the big issues in same-sex marriage laws was the rights of the partners to partake in benefits that other marriages enjoy; spousal inheritance, spousal health insurance and disability benefits, matrimonial rights in cases of divorce.

      As much as I see posts from individuals wanting to know how they can have sex with multiple partners in marriage, I do not think that polygamy is necessarily a slippery slope towards the end of civilization as we know it. Monogamous ideals are a christian concept that only work because we have become used to them.

      • This comment was deleted.

  9. Next silly question – when a polygamous relationship is discovered and prosecuted, is it the husband or the subsequent wives , or all of them, who are breaking the letter or spirit of the law? If the ultimate legal argument is going to be upholding the sanctity of monogamy, then isn’t the second wife, who takes a husband whom she knows to be already married, just as much to blame as the married husband who takes a second wife?

    • The law states that anyone who enters into, celebrates, assists or is party to a rite, ceremony , contract or consent is guilty and may face up to 5 years incarceration.

  10. In a polygyny… would’nt there be a pecking order, based on marital order or favouritism?
    I’m sure my tongue would have deep bite scars from holding it to avoid an “Estrogen War”, especially if I was on the bottom of the pecking order.
    Am I generalizing when I say most the the polygyny husbands look like oppressors?

  11. Can everyone imagine a chorus line of twenty women saying “NOT TONITE DEAR I’VE GOT A HEADACHE?
    About the only thing Trudeau got right was that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Many cultures permit more than one wife and as long as all are consenting adults the government should butt out. If there are minors involved there are laws to deal with this and if that is what the intent of this persecution is all about then these are the laws Blackmore should be charged under.

  12. As I see it there are four issues (at the minimum):
    1. We need to define the term “consenting adult.” For example: If a man has four “wives,” do each of his “wives” have the right to have three additional “husbands,” as long as all the men are consenting adults? In other words, does the original husband have the right to deny any or all of his wives their right to be consenting adults in other polygamous relationships? And what constitutes genuine consent? Would it be a signed legal document, or perhaps a verbal statement made in front of a public official?
    2. We need to define the purpose of marriage. Is it merely a legal contract between two consenting adults? In the Christian tradition, marriage between a man and a woman is viewed as the source of children, and thus families, which are the small-group relationships that enable children (and adults, for that matter) to learn the basic rules of interacting appropriately with the rest of society.
    3. We need to decide whether marriage should be a government matter. As present, marriage allows its participants to claim certain government privileges or protections because marriage is deemed to have positive social benefits. But do the negatives at some point outweigh the benefits? The courts today are clogged with divorce petitions, the social service system is overloaded with child-protection issues arising from marriages run amok, school systems have taken on a social-service and a family function because of the disintegration of marriages, police departments are increasingly being forced to protect one spouse from the other (as well as protecting the children), and courts are left to resolve acrimonious inheritance disputes. And worst of all, the children born of problematic marriages do not learn the aforementioned rules for relating to others in society, which means they are bred to create even more havoc-prone marriages of their own. Today the trend appears to be toward intimate relationships without form, legal commitment (i.e., a marriage).
    4. Should marriage, if it continues to be regulated by government, be allowed only if the consenting adults also consent to severe restrictions on behaviour – e.g., monitoring on a regular basis to ensure that children are not at risk, which would necessarily invade rights to privacy; requiring outside financial investment to guarantee that children will have access to resources in the event of a divorce, etc.?
    Marriage will continue to exist because churches and other religious organizations can “marry” people without government assent. Churches may need to impose greater restrictions on brides and grooms but they cannot do any worse a job than government and society, independent of religion, have done.

  13. I think the most important point here is that these arrangements usually involve some form of coersion, not suprisingly it always seems to be females being coerced by creepy old men who swear they are screwing all these women because it is “God’s work”. Ya right. In the worst case senarios it usually involves teenage girls not old enough to have a drivers licence, let alone a marriage licence, being knocked up by previously mentioned creepy old men. What any assortment of consenting adults do is no concern of mine, long as they’re doin’ it on their own dime. However there is always a power imbalance in these cases and guess who always has the power. It sure as heck isn’t the 14 year old.

    • That is a concern, but it’s not the issue when you’re charging people with polygamy itself.

  14. Legal and moral issues aside, where the heck do these polygamists (like the guy in the photo) get the money to support these huge families? Are they all millionaires?

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if the community has large property assets which the elders control, or they might even take tithes.

    • These huge families are supporting them, not the other way around.

    • Ah, interesting, thanks. Man, if I were one of the exiled young males (I presume that’s how Bountiful, like other polygamous communities, works?), I’d be back in a flash to raise the red flag of rebellion. I wonder what those fellows have to say about things.

  15. Those ploygamists are lucky. They get laid a lot. Teach me how you get to sleep with several women. I want to know your secrets.

    • Hmm…on a lighter note it seems you are a Canadian that can’t get laid and are unemployed….and it’s all Bush’s fault…since 2003 apparently. I think many things can be blamed on Bush but… Anyway, he’s gone in a few days and Obama is in. Opps, chicks dig him so your chances of scoring with an Obama girl have gone down. Man you can’t catch a break. If only McCain had won. Well at least you can fall back on that time honoured tradition on this site of blaming everything on Harper from hemmroids to erectile dysfuntion.

  16. Try pleasing 2 women at the same time.
    Try treating both equally- same benefits, attention, time, money,
    Can 2 women share a home, kitchen , children’s attention etc etc?

    If men can be equal and fair and continue his interests with each of the women…then good luck.

    What about transmitting diseases, bacteria, virus etc?

  17. not that i would or even want to…but would we as normal citizens get away with what this sicko is doing???? no we would not, there should only be 1 law for everyone religion or not, blackmore and all the other men that are doing this are pigs and are not worth even spitting at. i have never come across a scripture in the bible where men can marry more than 1 woman or same sex marriage to me its all disgusting…i feel sorry for those small children.