When pro-family supporters predicted that with the change in the legal definition of marriage to include gay “marriage,” the door to polygamy had been propped wide open, they were roundly shouted down as alarmists and extremists in the House of Commons and the press. During the debate on same-sex “marriage,” Liberal minister of justice Irwin Cotler adamantly insisted that polygamy would not be an issue. But, said Gwen Landoldt, national vice-president of REAL Women of Canda, “Everyone knew very well that it would be.”
“If you can break down the laws guarding heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman, then anything can happen,” Landolt warned. “If you can have a partner of the same sex, then logically you can have two or three of the opposite sex.”
The logic that was beyond the grasp of these legislative and journalistic detractors, however, was fully grasped by those groups in Canada, notably the burgeoning Islamic community, who have been quietly practising polygamy on religious grounds. As The Interimreported in 2005, at the time the marriage issue hit the news, expectation was high among Vancouver’s Muslims that the abolition of the legal definition of marriage would pave the way for a constitutional challenge in favour of the Koranic dispensation for a man to have up to four wives. Various reports have said that multiple marriages among Muslims in Canada is already common.
Attention has now been focused on a small community in the interior of British Columbia, where the practise has been the normal way of life for over 60 years. In a National Postarticle in 2001, Fabian Dawson wrote that although polygamy is a Criminal Code offence in Canada, the small town of Bountiful, B.C. was nonetheless “becoming a safe haven” for polygamists. The B.C. government had refused to prosecute suspects in a small breakaway Mormon sect based in Bountiful, on the grounds that the law was likely “unconstitutional.”
According to a report by the CBC, the self-proclaimed prophet and supreme leader of the sect, , has at least 50 wives. He is also on the FBI’s most wanted list and is a fugitive who has been indicted on two counts of sexual assault with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. The CBC interviewed Winston Blackmore, a former “bishop” of the sect in Bountiful and a rival of Jeffs, and reported that Blackmore has at least 26 wives and 80 children. Older male members of the sect are reportedly collecting large households of multiple, and often extremely young, wives and sending young men out of town to cut down on the competition for adolescent girls.
Homosexual lobbyists achieved their massive social change starting in the courts. After several distinct challenges wound their ways through various provincial courts, a request was made to the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether a change in the definition of marriage to include homosexual partners was constitutional. Now, as if on cue, the British Columbia government announced in August that it will likely be seeking the advice of the courts, possibly including the Supreme Court of Canada, to see if Canadian criminal law has also been constitutionally mistaken about polygamy.
As long ago as 1990, the Crown had declined to pursue charges in Bountiful, fearing that the law might be struck down in the courts as unconstitutional under the freedom of religion clauses of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With this in mind, the attorney-general of B.C., Wally Oppal, hired lawyer Richard Peck to investigate the community of Bountiful near Cranbrook, B.C., where the sect, called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is living according to their deeply held religious beliefs.
Peck’s conclusion, announced in August, was that criminal charges ought not be laid, but rather that a reference question be forwarded to the B.C. Court of Appeal and “a probable further appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.” Peck wrote in his report, “The legality of polygamy in Canada has, for too long, been characterized by uncertainty … The integrity of the legal system suffers from such an impasse and an authoritative statement from the courts is necessary in order to resolve it.”
The constitutionality question could be moot, however. As Ken MacQueen wrote August 15 in Maclean’s, “If polygamy is illegal, but nobody wants to prosecute it, is it really a crime?”