MENTION polygamy in Canada and what might come to mind is Bountiful, a suitably named town in British Columbia. It is home to Canada’s best-known polygamist, Winston Blackmore, who has an estimated 148 children. He and James Oler, a fellow adherent of a fundamentalist splinter sect of the Mormon church, practised “plural marriage” for decades until a court found them guilty in July of the crime of polygamy. (Their appeal will be heard on December 12th.)
It was the first conviction for more than a century under a law from 1892 that aimed to stop American polygamists (many of them Mormons irked by their church’s renunciation of polygamy in 1890) from practising in Canada. Authorities had been wary of laying such charges for fear of a constitutional challenge. That obstacle was removed in 2011 when the Supreme Court in British Columbia found freedom of religion could not be used to justify actions that harmed others.
The debate about the conflicting principles of human rights and religious freedom is shifting to Islamic immigrants. That is partly because of the trial of Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan immigrant who in 2009, with the help of his second wife and son, murdered three of their other children, as well as his first wife; and partly because of the passage in 2015 of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act by the previous Conservative government. The law, which reiterated that polygamy is a crime, as are “barbaric practices” such as genital mutilation and the forced marriage of children, was criticised for having an Islamophobic tone. Yet it struck a chord with those Canadians who feel Muslims do not share their values.
Polygamy is legal for Muslims in three of the top five source countries for immigrants to Canada in 2015 (the Philippines, Iran and Pakistan) and quite common in another (India). Canada has advised UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, not to refer any refugees in polygamous marriages to Canada for resettlement. But border agents in Canada must often make snap judgments based on little information. Often the only way they can identify a polygamist is if he were to volunteer the information or tried to bring in more than one wife at once. Easier to bring them in separately as domestic servants or relatives (Ms Shafia was brought in as a servant and described as the children’s aunt).
Often the first sign officials have of a polygamous relationship is when it comes to light in a case of domestic abuse, says Shalini Konanur of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, which helps women in violent relationships who risk deportation. The impact of enforcement falls most heavily on women, who are barred at the border, abandoned in their home country or stuck in abusive relationships in Canada for fear of being found out and deported.
Martha Bailey, a specialist in family law at Queen’s University in Kingston, says polygamy sometimes comes up as an issue when multiple wives seek shares in an inheritance. Susan Drummond, a legal anthropologist, argued in 2009 that the ban on polygamy should be dropped because Canada has other laws and regulations to protect women and minors.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has promised to ensure Canadian laws are analysed to see if they harm women. That is a nice gesture. But he should look at how laws work in practice, too.