How to immigrate to Canada if you're a polygamist

We don't approve, but that doesn't mean you can't get in

Mohammad Shafia leaves the holding cell at the Frontenac county courthouse in Kingston, Ontario on Dec. 8, 2011. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

Canadian courts and legislatures might be standing firm against polygamy, but our immigration authorities appear to have a more, shall we say, accommodating view of the practice.

People in multiple marriages are not automatically excluded from residency in Canada, according to documents obtained by Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer and access-to-information wizard. They just need to “convert” their first marriage into a monogamous one. How? It’s no more complicated than arriving with the first spouse and telling immigration officials you plan to live together in monogamy.

Here’s what a policy memo, approved by Dawn Edlund, an associate assistant deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and circulated among top immigration officials, says:

A polygamous marriage can be converted into a monogamous marriage provided that the couple live together in a monogamous relationship from the time of arrival in Canada. This conversion is effected by the stated intention of the parties to so convert their marriage, followed by some factual evidence that they have complied.

What factual evidence is necessary the note doesn’t say, but here’s how the process works:

A foreign national who is practicing polygamy in their country of origin, albeit legally, who applies to immigrate to Canada is informed that polygamy is illegal in Canada. They are also told that they may only include one spouse in their application and that it must be their first spouse in order to satisfy the IRPR requirements. Under Canadian law, all other marriages after the first are illegal. For this reason, the first spouse only may enter Canada on a permanent basis, which thereby creates a monogamous marriage.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say the applicant would rather settle down instead with his second or third spouse? Difficult, but not impossible:

If a husband wishes to sponsor a wife other than his first as a spouse, he must divorce his other wives and remarry the chosen wife in a form of marriage that is valid in Canada. He and his chosen spouse must sign a declaration to that effect.

Ah, a declaration. Well in that case …

Not to be cynical, but it’s easy to see how someone like, say, Mohammad Shafia could flaunt these rules by simply lying as to the number of his marriages, or who his first wife is, and bring more than one into the country. When the Shafia clan immigrated to Canada in 2007, Mohammad declared only one wife on his paperwork: Tooba Mohammad Yahya, his second bride. His first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, arrived months later on a visitor’s visa; Shafia told immigration authorities she was his cousin.

Also, sharp eyes will notice a contradiction between these guidelines and longstanding immigration policy in Canada. Polygamy is considered a crime in Canada. Criminality is supposed to exclude you from eligibility for residency. As Kurland put it in an email to me this morning: “Who lets the CIC choose the sections of Canada’s Criminal Code to ignore?”

Evidently, the policy recognizes the legality of polygamy in some countries, such as Jordan, Iraq and Syria, allowing for people to adjust their living arrangements so they comply with Canadian law. Our flexibility is this regard is remarkable: children from marriages other than the applicant’s first, for instance, can come along as dependents to Canada, provided the other parent confirms they were not abducted.

Depending on your outlook, I guess this all makes us either sophisticated, cosmopolitan and nuanced—or credulous to a fault.

Memo to Citizenship and Immigration employees on polygamy

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