Last month, following an anonymous tip alleging widespread abuse, authorities in Eldorado, Texas raided the compound of a polygamist, fundamentalist Mormon sect and took hundreds of children into custody.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is also active in Canada, most famously in Bountiful, British Columbia, just north of the international border with Idaho.
The Texas raid has put pressure on the B.C. government to take action against that community. B.C.’s attorney-general Wally Oppal says he will crack down soon. But he’s not sure how:
“Something must be done. I personally feel, and our government feels, that it would be inappropriate to do nothing.”
Technically, polygamy has been illegal in Canada since the late 19th century. Here’s section 293 of the criminal code of Canada, which threatens polygamists with up to five years in prison. But it has been 60 years since anyone tried to enforce the law. Bountiful residents have been engaged in the practice for decades without any legal interference.
In her recent book on the topic, The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect, Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham explained why:
Polygamy has been illegal in Canada and the United States since 1890. But fundamentalist Mormonism is thriving in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia. There are dozens of different groups and thousands of so-called independents, which makes it impossible to know how many fundamentalists there are. Estimates range from 37,000 to 1 million across the continent, yet politicians have been loath to do anything about the people who call themselves Saints. Politicians have not just looked the other way, they have in many instances made it easier for the Saints’ leaders to intimidate, control and abuse their followers. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Bountiful, British Columbia, and in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. In 1992, the B.C. government refused to enforce Canada’s law by charging the bishop of Bountiful, Winston Blackmore, with polygamy. Citing studies by several leading legal experts, the B.C. government said the law would not withstand a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religion and association.
Blackmore, the leader of the Bountiful community and the father of many of its kids, is said to keep a framed copy of the Charter of Rights in his office, confident that it protects him from any possible convictions.
The debate over the polygamy law in Canada may become more urgent in coming years as Canada accepts more and more immigrants from countries where the practice is legal. And the debate takes place in a context of changing cultural attitudes toward all kinds of relationships. In fact, one of the most critically acclaimed new TV dramas in the last couple of years is HBO’s Big Love, which is about a polygamous family.
In 2005, the federal government commissioned four legal research studies on polygamy. They were equally divided – two against two – about what to do about the law. Two studies called for authorities to enforce the existing polygamy laws and suggested they were charter-challenge-proof. Implicit in this recommendation is the idea that the practice of polygamy in itself violates the equality rights of women and children.
The other two studies recommended decriminalizing the practice of polygamy. Implicit in this argument is that polygamy itself does not cause domestic or sexual abuse, which are separate crimes that can be dealt with through other sections of the criminal code, and that section 293 may distract from prosecuting actual cases of abuse because it muddies the legal waters.
Witness the inaction on Bountiful.
For a more comprehensive airing of this debate, please tune into a televised discussion I am producing, which is airing tonight and will be available online by tomorrow. Details here.