A Vancouver Island woman with two male common-law partners says Canada's polygamy law needs to be struck down by the B.C. Supreme Court because it doesn't permit her to live her chosen lifestyle.

Zoe Duff, a director of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, lives in Esquimalt, west of Victoria, with her two male partners. Duff says she and the two men are polyamorists, a term that literally means "many loves."

But it wasn't until she looked at the law that criminalizes polygamy that Duff realized their relationship was illegal, she said.

"Holy cow — this affects me," said Duff, who came to Vancouver this week to watch the B.C. Supreme Court hearing at which Canada's polygamy ban is being tested.

Lawyers representing the attorneys general of B.C. and Canada are arguing that polygamy forces child brides into the arms of manipulative men and should remain illegal.

The special hearing into the issue was called after charges against two religious leaders from Bountiful, B.C., with multiple wives were dismissed by a judge because B.C.'s attorney general was unable to fairly appoint a special prosecutor willing to take the case to court.

Section 293 of the Criminal Code explicitly bans polygamy and threatens offenders with a five-year prison term.

The legal team for B.C.'s attorney general said Tuesday morning that the law is intended to crack down on only one kind of polygamy — polygyny, which involves one husband with multiple wives, as opposed to polyandry, which is one woman with multiple husbands. But the distinction remains a key point in the legal debate at the hearing.

Consensual relationship in the shadows

Duff says the situation in Bountiful has little relevance to her and the two men who share her bed, and she would like the court to strike down the law so that people like her don't have to live in the shadows.

"I'm living common-law with two partners, and this law very much overshadows my life and how I feel, how I relate to other people in the community and causes a great need for secrecy that's just not part of a lifestyle that I want," Duff said.

As written, the law targets people in any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, and Duff says that includes her.

"I'm a female with two partners ... and I would never have called myself a polygamist, but the description does fall under the description of this law," she said. "I'm currently in contravention of a law if they chose to prosecute us."

Polygamy targets child brides

Not everyone agrees that polygamist or polyamorous relationships are consensual. B.C.'s attorney general is arguing that laws against polygamy are needed to prevent exploitation of child brides.

Brenda Jensen left the tightly knit Mormon fundamentalist community of Bountiful, located in southeastern B.C., at the age of 14 and says polygamous relationships cannot exist without exploitation.

"All the freedoms they're beating the drum about, they're the ones not living by it," said Jensen, referring to the men in the community with multiple wives. "They're not allowing their children to have it.  They're not educating their people so they know they have choices.

"They take the freedom before the child is even old enough to know what freedom is about."  

The court has appointed a legal team to act as the amicus curiae, or friend of the court, and make the legal argument that Canada's polygamy law should be struck down because it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The hearing, which began this week, is expected to last until January.

Thirty-six witnesses, including some women in polygamous relationships, are scheduled to testify — in some cases, behind screens to shield their identity from spectators in the court.