British Columbia

Landmark polygamy ruling to be handed down

Tha fate of a breakaway sect of Mormons could be at stake when a B.C. Supreme Court judge hands down a ruling Wednesday on the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law.
Children run back to class following a recess at Mormon Hills school in the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The self-described fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful, B.C., have shaped the debate over Canada's anti-polygamy law, but a court ruling Wednesday morning could have implications extending far beyond the boundaries of the isolated community.

Observers say if a B.C. Supreme Court judge strikes down all or part of the Criminal Code section banning polygamy, it will have a major impact on Canada's immigration system and certain minority communities, and could make this country a haven for polygamists.

At the same time, a group of so-called polyamorists, who describe themselves as consenting adults in relationships that happen to involve more than two people, worry they could be targeted if the law is upheld.

The competing interests underscore the complexities of a case that has tested the boundaries of religious freedom, the definition of marriage and the role of criminal laws in regulating morality.

"[Bountiful] is a very small community, with a small number of people who happen to have the highest profile, but I suspect that, if not polygamy per se, various types of multi-person relationships exist all over the place," said Ron Skolrood, a Vancouver-based constitutional lawyer who wasn't involved in the case.

"I think the court has to be mindful of that and has to be careful at looking at the context broader than just Bountiful."

Failed prosecutions

The B.C. government asked the court to examine the constitutionality of the polygamy law following the failed prosecution of two leaders from Bountiful.

The subsequent trial heard from a range of academic experts, former polygamists and current plural wives, and most of the evidence focused on Bountiful and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the FLDS, to which the community belongs.

There was, however, some evidence about polygamy outside of Bountiful, though its prevalence is difficult to quantify.

There are believed to be hundreds of polygamous marriages in Canada involving Muslims. Aly Hindi, an imam in Scarborough, Ont., told The Canadian Press earlier this year that he was aware of more than 200 such marriages in Toronto alone, including a number in which he has officiated.

Some Muslim and North African countries continue to condone polygamy, and the court heard from experts who said when husbands and wives in polygamous relationships attempt to immigrate into Canada, they sometimes attempt to bring those traditions with them.

Nick Bala, a law professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said striking down the polygamy law could bring those polygamous marriages, however rare, out of the shadows while leaving immigration officials with few options to prevent polygamists from entering the country.

"If the law is struck down, I think Canada could become a real centre for polygamists, both from the United States and Muslim countries," said Bala, who provided an affidavit at the B.C. court case but wasn't called to testify.

"I don't think it would affect Bountiful immediately, but I do think we'd see a lot more polygamists in Canada."

Before 2009, when the B.C. government attempted, and failed, to charge two men from Bountiful with polygamy, the most recent charges were in 1937. The last convictions were more than 100 years ago.