British Columbia

Anti-polygamy law oppresses wives: McGill prof

Women living in a B.C. polygamous community don't feel oppressed because of their lifestyle, but because their marriages are considered illegal, a law professor testified Wednesday.

Women living in the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C., don't feel oppressed because of their marriages, but because one of the central practices of their religion is considered a crime, a law professor testified Wednesday.

Angela Campbell of Montreal's McGill University was the first witness to appear at the landmark constitutional case, and her testimony was especially controversial. A day earlier, the provincial and federal governments — which are both arguing that polygamy should remain illegal — tried to block her appearance.

Campbell visited Bountiful in 2008 and 2009 and interviewed a number of women, including wives living in plural marriages. She interviewed 20 women in Bountiful, along with two who had left the community.

Before she visited, Campbell had read about the alleged harms of polygamy, which are central to the government's argument: that multiple marriage fosters sexual and physical abuse, creates child brides, requires boys to be expelled and leaves women unable to have any say in who they marry.

But Campbell said what she found instead were women who rejected the notion that polygamy inevitably leads to abuse or that they are unequal.

"In speaking with the community members about the risks of inequality and abuse ...  the responses would be to the effect of, 'We're not treated badly, we've chosen to live this way, it's consistent with what we value,"' said Campbell.

Marriage trends shifting

Campbell said the women she interviewed told her adolescent marriages have been discouraged in recent years and women have more say in who they marry. Some were even using contraception, although she acknowledged that was often without their husbands' knowledge.

She said women in plural marriages valued their relationships with their husbands' other wives, referred to as "sister wives," who share in domestic responsibilities such as child care.

Campbell said it appeared the prohibition against polygamy was doing the most damage, stigmatizing the women and making it more difficult for them to seek outside help such as domestic or spousal counselling.

"There was a resistance to being in the spotlight, especially in the spotlight as a plural wife."

At any rate, Campbell said the law against polygamy wasn't working. While some of the women told Campbell they haven't always known that polygamy was a crime in Canada, they do now, and that prohibition isn't stopping polygamous marriages.

"Currently, [the law] is known because of the fact that there's so much attention on this community, politically, through law enforcement, through the media," she testified.

"The belief that this practice was mandated by faith was viewed as more important, yielding a stronger force on their lives than the state's rules."

More liberal sect

Residents in Bountiful practise a form of fundamentalist Mormonism, which teaches polygamy will help them enter the highest kingdom of heaven. The mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

About 1,000 people live in Bountiful, a small commune in southeastern B.C. near the U.S. border, and they're divided into two separate factions. One is led by James Oler, who has formal ties to the U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, and the other is led by Winston Blackmore, whose followers split from the FLDS in 2002.

The women Campbell interviewed were all members of Blackmore's congregation.

B.C. government lawyer Craig Jones noted Blackmore's followers have a reputation for being more liberal than Oler's, and liberalization has increased since the split in 2002.

He also noted that Campbell's research indicated Canada's laws against polygamy only became common knowledge in the community within the past few years.

"So it's safe to say in the time frame in which criminalization has been weighing more heavily on the residents' minds, that is also a period in which the community has become less insular and isolated?" said Jones.

"That's a fair parallel," replied Campbell.

Jones also questioned Campbell's conclusions that child brides and the so-called "lost boys" phenomenon, in which boys and young men with no one left to marry are cast out of the community, aren't major problems in Bountiful.

He asked Campbell whether she had any data, such as the ages at which women first gave birth or the graduation rates of boys and girls.

Campbell agreed such information would help determine whether those problems exist, but she hadn't researched it.