"Knives Out for Poly Peeps"
Canada has its own branch of the polygamist Mormon sect that was raided in Texas last year for alleged child abuse. In the town of Bountiful, British Columbia, fundamentalist Mormon men have been openly marrying plural wives for many decades. And as in Texas, male leaders are said to abuse women and force underage girls into marriage against their will.
But with no insiders willing to talk, there was never enough evidence to bring statutory-rape or abuse charges. And prosecutors were unwilling to bring charges of simple polygamy, fearing that if the polygamy law were ever tested it would be overturned as a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But on January 7th, British Columbia attorney general Wally Oppal finally went ahead. He had Winston Blackmore, 52, charged with having had conjugal relations with 19 women, and James Oler, 44, with having two wives. The two men lead rival polygamist factions in Bountiful and are said to have about 1,000 followers in all.
What does this have to do with non-abusive, free-choice, secular polyamory? Nothing, say the law's backers. Everything, says the law itself.
Section 293 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which prohibits polygamy, also criminalizes "any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage." This is punishable by up to five years in prison.
In other words, polys who consider themselves group-bonded, or call each other wife and husband, or agree to be poly-fi, or maybe even just agree to care for each other, are criminals as the law is written.
You don't even have to have sex.
Xtra, Canada's chain of gay newspapers "where queers conspire," has a column about this:
...[T]he trial of a cultish leader of a tiny religious sect could very well be one of the most important legal battle of the next decade for gays and lesbians — and all people who have flirted with unconventional sexual expression. Will we be brave enough to tackle it?
Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with one count of practicing polygamy Jan 7. Those charges are the culmination of 20 years of allegations and rumours about all manner of depravity at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) compound in Bountiful, BC.
At best, the polygamy charge is a stand-in for unproven allegations, especially spousal and child abuse. The RCMP [federal police] sleuths haven't been able to make the case that these guys are abusing their wives and kids, so they've slapped them with a polygamy charge. At worst, BC Attorney General Wally Oppal is seriously planning to get tough on polygamists in some throwback to 19th century prudishness. Either way, it's an embarrassment.
Gays and lesbians are all too familiar with the reasons why laws enforcing sexual norms on private relationships are antiquated....
Ultimately, prosecutors will be trying both Bountiful's top dogs and Canada's polygamy law at the same time. That's bad luck for anyone interested in sexual freedom or social tolerance. The spectre of Bountiful's other rumoured offences will hang heavily over the trial and its inevitable appeals.
It will almost certainly go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, they will have to test the constitutionality of a flimsy, seldom-used law — using, as its test subject, a blackguard of religious totalitarianism. Not exactly a sterling martyr for sexual freedom.
...If the Supreme Court uses the "icky" test in R v Blackmore, lord help us all.
Read the whole article (Jan. 8, 2009. Ads may be NSFW). There's been lots of other news coverage in the Canadian press.
Update: Here is Section 293 of Canada's Criminal Code:
(1) Every one who
(a) practices or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practice or enter into
(i) any form of polygamy, or
(ii) any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage, or
(b) celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship mentioned in subparagraph (a)(i) or (ii), is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.
Evidence in case of polygamy
(2) Where an accused is charged with an offence under this section, no averment or proof of the method by which the alleged relationship was entered into, agreed to or consented to is necessary in the indictment or on the trial of the accused, nor is it necessary on the trial to prove that the persons who are alleged to have entered into the relationship had or intended to have sexual intercourse.
Note that if you are merely "a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction" the relationship, you are equally guilty. If you attend someone's handfasting, contribute potluck food to the ceremony, or help the people draft agreements, you're also subject to up to five years in prison.
P.S.: Two relevant papers:
"Polygamy in Canada: Legal and Social Implications for Women and Children A Collection of Policy Research Reports," by Campbell, A. et al. (2005). Status of Women Canada, Gov't. Canada. (PDF or HTML format.)
"Polygyny and Canada's Obligations under International Human Rights Law," by Cook, R. J., and Kelly, L. M. (2006). Family, Children and Youth Section Research Report, Department of Justice Canada. (PDF or HTML.)