Polygamy, Impunity and Human Rights

By Bramham, Daphne | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Polygamy, Impunity and Human Rights


Bramham, Daphne, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


Polygamy has been illegal in Canada since 1890. It was criminalized soon after Charles O. Card, a fugitive escaping prosecution in Utah for having more than one wife, settled in Alberta.

Card and several senior members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints went to Ottawa to ask Sir John A. Macdonald to allow them to practise polygamy. The Prime Minister said no. Parliament approved the anti-polygamy law the same year that Utah outlawed plural marriage in both its constitution and law and the Mormon Church issued its manifesto suspending the earthly practice of polygamy and warning members that they would be excommunicated if they entered into celestial or plural marriages.

In the intervening years, polygamy has rarely been prosecuted in either Canada or the United States. But since the 1990s, a breakaway sect of polygamous Mormons in British Columbia has acted with impunity. The reason? The B.C. government received a couple of legal opinions in the late 1980s saying that the anti-polygamy law is contrary to the guarantee of religious freedom in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Opinions in hand, NDP Attorney-General Colin Gabelmann, who had no legal training, rejected the RCMP's recommendation to prosecute two leaders of the fundamentalist Mormon community in Bountiful.

Since 1990, Bountiful has tripled in size to 1,200 or more people. There are nearly 500 children in the two government-funded independent schools, which only go up to Grade 10. Winston Blackmore, the community's bishop, has framed a copy of the Charter and hung it in his office. By his own admission, he has also consummated "celestial marriages" with "several very young girls." In league with American fundamentalist Mormons, Blackmore has participated in the forced marriages of dozens of underaged girls. He is also complicit in the trafficking of young girls and women between Canada and the United States into what one author called "God's brothel." Now 51, Blackmore has had 26 wives and, by last count, has 116 children.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly said that polygamy is "incompatible with equality of treatment with regard to the right to marry." To make the skewed arithmetic of polygamy work, women and children must be chattels. As a result, men--usually in God's name--trample the freedoms of everyone who has the misfortune to fall under their power.

Fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful (as well as those in the Texas compound raided in April by child protection authorities) are taught that boys are to treat girls as snakes. They're disciplined if they do something as innocent as flirt with girls their own age, watch videos or listen to rock music. Some are excommunicated and told to leave the community at ages as young as 12 and 13. Their mothers are told to tear up or burn photos of them. But the boys are useful for something. It is on the backs of their labour that the leaders support their multiple wives and dozens of children. The patriarchs send the boys to work at companies they control, either as unpaid labourers or for little more than slave wages.

Men who run afoul of Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are excommunicated. For their part, women and girls are told that their highest and best use is to produce children. Most expect to have eight, ten or more. Birth control is not allowed. They are taught to be subservient to the prophet, their fathers, their husbands and sometimes even their sons. "Keep sweet" and "perfect obedience leads to perfect faith" are two mantras they are encouraged to repeat.

It is a rare polygamous family where all of the wives and mothers are treated equally. As a result, plural wives must constantly compete for affection, attention and money with other women and the children. If a woman's children are sickly or if she collapses under the strain of too many pregnancies, too many children or too many sister-wives, it is her fault. …

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