DiManno: Both sides of polygamy debate fear the law

January 27, 2011

Rosie DiManno



Teenage girls transported over the border for the purpose of sex and breeding: That’s human trafficking.

Underage girls, below the age of consent, conscripted into conjugal relationships: That’s sexual assault.

Adolescent boys driven from their homes by men middle-aged and older — fathers, church and community leaders — as perceived rivals in the competition for nubile mates: That’s societal engineering and a different kind of abuse.

Plural marriages: That’s polygamy and against the law.

Sec. 293 of the Criminal Code is as clear as arch legalese will allow, forbidding conjugal union with more than one partner at the same time, “whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage.”

The law does not limit the number of people who can live together and call themselves a family. The law is not concerned with how many consenting adults are parties to a relationship. If your thing is a ménage à trois, or a partner-swapping quartet, or all-male or all-female or transvestite or transgendered or howsoever polyamorous — the vogue term for an intimate cleaving that involves more than two willing adults — the state will not bring you to trial.

It’s your business.

But polygamous marriage within the rubric of religion — the coercion and sexual exploitation of girls, whether agreeable to those females or nor, and the trafficking required to sustain a polygamous community — is rightly a crime. Only in Canada would this be a matter of constitutional challenge—which just goes to show how far the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been co-opted, manipulated, to turn fundamental concepts on their head in the ever-unravelling tapestry of classic Western democracy.

An overweaning ideal of multiculturalism almost snuck sharia law into Ontario a few years ago when Barbara Hall foolishly advocated selling out gender to Islamic fundamentalists in the name of minority rights and religious equivalency. That this would have institutionalized patriarchy and affirmed inequalities — in inheritance rights, divorce and child custody — seemed lost on the logic-averse white-broad fembos.

Now, in British Columbia, a similar exercise in brain-seizure pedantry is being played out before Supreme Court Justice Robert Bauman with a “reference case’’ constitutional challenge to the Criminal Code section that criminalizes polygamy.

While practitioners of plural marriage (and take that to mean exclusively one husband with several wives) in Bountiful, B.C., have come forward to defend their lifestyle (pardon, FAITH; pardon, RELIGIOUS CULT), secure in the promise they won’t face prosecution for anything admitted in this courtroom, so, too, have misguided sectarian allies added their support for striking down a law they claim criminalizes unconventional relationships.

This is absurdly untrue. The law doesn’t force monogamy on married people. And the law does not render illegal the cohabitation of however many people choose to live as a family nor dictate their sleeping arrangements.

“Canadians can have sex with as many people as they like,’’ notes the Section 293 explanation on the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association website, which then goes on to whine: “We’re criminalized only when we form committed families.’’

No. What’s criminalized is pluralized wedlock where, despite the absence of any recognized civil union — i.e. a marriage licence — women, young girls, are often scooped up from cult Mormon communes in the U.S., transported across the border under false pretenses, isolated in a hideaway valley enclave, impregnated as teenagers and treated as broodmares, rearing upwards of 30 children under one room with their “sister-wives,” with no legal status as a genuine spouse in the event of “re-assignment’’ to another husband, and with no legal recourse to marital property rights or spousal support obligations — which are also the historical and legal underpinnings of wedlock.

That some apparently enjoy this enslavement and sought it out — because they were raised in like-minded communes around Utah and Colorado and Texas, the excommunicated pockets of fundamentalist Mormon splinter cults that defied their church’s renouncing of polygamy more than a century ago — is not surprising and even less relevant. Whether brainwashed or culturally kneaded to it, the obedient daughters of one daddy and multiple moms, their embracing of polygamy can’t possibly be used to justify a legal accommodation for plural marriages.

This isn’t just about the individuals directly involved. It’s about all of us because we, too, have an ethical stake in acceptance or rejection of polygamy. The civil libertarian view on polygamous marriage is misguided because plural wives sexualizes children, estranges boys from their communities and is a clear affront to the equality of women. It is harmful.

“The harms documented at Bountiful are the perfectly predictable — indeed the inevitable — consequences of a polygamous society,’’ B.C. government lawyer Craig Jones told the court when this hearing began more than two months ago.

“Bountiful did not create polygamy. Polygamy created Bountiful.’’

It’s not simply — as three separate Bountiful plural wives beseeched from the witness stand this week — the right to be left alone, to do as they like, or as demanded by their faith. A faith — the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — that has been deemed breakaway apostate and invalid, it should be remembered, by their own Mother Church.

And that’s just the females. What of the young males, several of whom have appeared at the B.C. hearing or filed affidavits describing how they were forced to leave Bountiful at age 14 or 15, because old coots, their own leaders, fear sharing the limited female gene-pool?

The FLDS is not a benign religious sect, like the gentle Amish. It has engendered quantifiable harm in Bountiful, a town of about 1,000 fundamentalist practitioners. Figures from the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency, filed as an affidavit last week, are shocking: 833 babies born to 215 mothers over 13 years, although the numbers are likely higher since the agency tracked births associated only with the community’s 14 most common surnames. A third of those mothers — 85 — were 18 or younger when they gave birth, seven times the provincial rate for teen moms.

Two of the teens had three children each by the time they were 18; 16 had two children each. What the figures show is that one in 10 babies were born to teenage girls — even though the FLDS allegedly ceased performing under-age marriages in 2008 — and 45 per cent of Bountiful mothers are foreign-born.

One man alone — spiritual leader Winston Blackmore, the now-54-year-old bishop of Bountiful — had at least 107 children.

The B.C. government tried prosecuting Blackmore and James Oler — duelling bishops in the internally split sect — for polygamy in 2009 but the charges were stayed because a judge found they had been improperly laid by a special prosecutor improperly appointed. That led to this broader hearing on the constitutionality of Sec. 293.

For nearly three decades previously, the government had been frustrated in applying a law they worried would not stand a constitutional challenge. It was a gamble they were unwilling to take so Bountiful was allowed to let slide. The consequences of that approach are evident in these ghastly statistics.

If the law is struck down — an issue that will inevitably be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, however Bauman rules — Canada will become the only developed nation to legalize marriage between more than two people. That does not make us more progressive than the rest of the world.

The ladies of Bountiful who testified this week live in fear for breaking the law.

For too long, the government of B.C. has feared applying it.


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