wo decades ago
officers drove up a winding road through the Creston Valley of southeastern British Columbia, past fields of timothy hay and cottonwood stands, to an unmarked settlement known as Bountiful. It looked a typical rural town — homesteads bordered by well-kept yards full of children running and swinging and cycling — but, in fact, the officers had come to investigate a complaint that two local patriarchs, young gun Winston Blackmore and his fifty-seven-year old father-in-law Dalmon Oler, were polygamists — an offence under Section 293 of the Criminal Code.
All 1,000 or so residents of Bountiful are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS
), a Mormon sect that believes God’s chosen leaders should each marry several virgins and “multiply and replenish the Earth… that they may bear the souls of men.” Unashamed, Oler invited the officers into the fifteen-bedroom home he shared with his five wives and forty-eight children. Blackmore, who in addition to leading Canada’s FLDS
operated a multimillion-dollar logging, trucking, and manufacturing business, was cagier about numbers, only admitting to having more than one wife. He was rumoured, however, to have at least twenty-five (many underage at the time he married them), and more than eighty children.
After a year-long investigation, the case seemed completely straightforward, but lawyers knew otherwise. While the Criminal Code defines polygamy as a crime, the Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom, and in the summer of 1992, after consulting various constitutional experts, the BC attorney general’s office officially rejected the RCMP
recommendations, on the grounds that Section 293 was invalid. Blackmore, puffed up with victory, is said to have mounted a framed copy of the Charter on his office wall.
But his troubles were far from over. Blackmore would soon became embroiled in an internecine leadership struggle with James Marion Oler, son of Dalmon; more concerning, Bountiful suffered from growing image problems. In the wake of the thwarted charges, BC’s secretary of state for women’s equality commissioned a committee on polygamy issues, which in May 1993 issued Life in Bountiful
, a powerful indictment of polygamy, in particular forced marriage and extreme demands of obedience. “When does a culture stop being a culture,” the report concluded rhetorically, “and start being abuse?” A decade later, one of the committee members, escaped FLDS
wife Debbie Palmer, published Keep Sweet
, a sensational memoir dedicated to her eight children, “who lived through unspeakable horrors before I brought them out.” And in 2008, Vancouver Sun
columnist Daphne Bramham published The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect
, which documented, along with the sad fate of Bountiful’s girls, that of its boys, who were yanked from school and put to work, or expelled from the community to eliminate competition for brides.
The year after the book was released, BC’s attorney general, Wally Oppal, laid polygamy charges against Blackmore and James Oler (who replaced the former as bishop in 2002) and had the RCMP
arrest them. In his determination to do so, however, Oppal had ignored government lawyers who maintained the charge wouldn’t stand up to a Charter challenge, instead appointing successive independent prosecutors until he found one who recommended laying charges, which the court then quashed on procedural grounds. (Blackmore is now suing the BC government for expenses related to “unlawful” prosecution.) When Oppal lost a subsequent election, his successor, Mike de Jong, filed a constitutional reference in which he asked the BC Supreme Court to contend with the conflict between the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights at last.
When the trial opened on November 22, 2010, a stream of participants and witnesses for the government, including representatives from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, REAL
Women of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, and academic experts, testified about the many harms associated with polygamy. Most convincing, perhaps, was the testimony of former FLDS
members. Carolyn Jessop, who fled a community in Utah with her eight children in the middle of the night, summed it up well: “Polygamy is not pretty to look at. It is nice that it is tucked away in a dark corner where nobody has to see its realities, because it’s creepy.”
But George Macintosh, the amicus curiae (friend of the court) appointed to present the opposing argument, came out swinging. He characterized Section 293 as an overly broad and grossly disproportionate law rooted in Christian prejudices, a law demeaning to polygamists. Women in polygamous marriages anonymously testified that they were happy, that they’d made the right decision. According to CBC
, the BC Civil Liberties Association argued that “consenting adults have the right — the Charter protected right — to form the families that they want to form.” And the Canadian Association for Free Expression maintained that the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 strengthened the individual’s right to enter a polygamous marriage.
The rights argument carries considerable weight in a liberal society — if it didn’t, we wouldn’t still be faced with the Bountiful problem. We’ll find out what the court makes of it all by the end of the year. Something that hasn’t been fully considered but should be factored in to any reasonable decision is that rights can’t be separated from the culture in which they arise. They are inextricably linked to institutions that form the backbone of a society, and in every society throughout history the fundamental organizing institution has always been marriage.
ne of the
oldest extant marriage documents comes from ancient Babylonia, in the reign of Ammi-ditana (1683–1640 BC): the dowry register for Sabitum, daughter of Ibbatum, who gave her as wife into the house of Ilšu-ibni, for his son Warad-Kubi. Sabitum’s dowry consisted of two beds, two chairs, one table, two chests, one grindstone, one grindstone for flour, one ten-litre container, and one empty šikkatum
jar. In return, Ibbatum received ten silver shekels, and he tied that money into the fringe of Sabitum’s dress to be given back to Warad-Kubi. From the beginning, it seems, marriage has been a financial agreement, a way of distributing resources.
But it has not been exclusively monogamous. In old Babylonia, for example, the marriage contract might include a stipulation for polygamy; Warad-Kubi may have taken more wives than Sabitum. (This arrangement is more precisely called polygyny, but because the alternative form of polygamy — one wife with many husbands — is so rare, the distinction is rarely made.) While polygamy would never be the primary form of marriage — as Bountiful illustrates, huge segments of the male population would be out of luck — it was certainly widespread. And it’s clear that it provided unique advantages.
Polygamy acted as husbandly insurance against an individual wife’s barrenness, as well as high child mortality rates, and made ill or aging wives less burdensome. If it was taboo to have sex with pregnant and lactating women (which increased a nursing child’s chances of survival), new fathers suffered neither sexual privation nor a waiting period to produce another child. And with so many children, polygamists had plenty of sons to work the land or contribute to their commercial ventures; in militaristic societies, these sons were prized as military recruits. Daughters, less valued, were still useful for domestic work, or to be advantageously married off to polygamous men.
Of course, polygamy is entrenched in another ancient institution, patriarchy, and in this context of women’s assumed dependence it actually offered them certain protections. Consider Sabitum again: She was very unlikely to try to leave her husband — if she did, she was to be tied up and drowned. If he renounced her, he was to pay her a small lump sum, but in the absence of any kind of social safety net she would essentially be left destitute. If he died, she was in even worse shape. The expandable nature of the polygamous union meant there was a better chance another man would take her in. It also meant men were less likley to renounce unwanted, old, sick, or barren wives in the first place; even if they were shunted aside in favour of younger, healthier women, they at least remained married. (Polygamy was particularly useful in wartime, when there were fewer eligible men.) Co-wives would typically share a residence or compound, co-operating in household duties, including raising one another’s children. To overworked women who dreaded the sexual relations that could result in yet another pregnancy, the arrangement might have seemed like a godsend.
And yet it could also very easily succumb to ever-simmering tensions and jealousies. This was especially true with regard to children, rivals for their father’s attention and resources, and whose interests each mother attempted to promote at the expense of the other children. In all but the wealthiest households, supporting so many adults and offspring was a strain on the patriarch, and some of his dependents inevitably lost out. Moreover, an unhappy woman had little choice but to endure her lot; even if the prospect of single life seemed preferable, she would be forced to leave her children behind, possibly with an angry father and vindictive co-wives. Being trapped in this way meant there was always tremendous potential for injustice in the polygamous union.