British Columbia

Polyamorists hope for future legal recognition

While Canada's polyamorists — people with multiple partners outside a religious context — do not face criminalization as do polygamists, it is not enough for them to be considered 'just not illegal,' they said on Sunday.

Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association held 3-day convention in Vancouver

Lawyer John Ince, legal counsel for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, walks out of the B.C Supreme Court in Vancouver in 2011 after the court upheld the country's ban on polygamy. The polyamory association decided at the time not to appeal the ruling, even though it criminalizes some polyamorous families. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

While Canada's polyamorists — people with multiple partners outside a religious context — do not face criminalization as do polygamists, it is not enough for them to be considered "just not illegal," they said on Sunday.

As the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association wrapped up its three-day convention, the first of its kind to be held in Canada, the association's director and conference chair Zoe Duff said polyamorists hope to one day gain the same legal recognition as other couples.

"It would be nice ... to have households where our spouses are equal under the law, and moving forward in terms of pensions, and inheritances and property division," she said.

Unlike polygamy, there is no law in Canada that specifically bans polyamory. Polyamorists also distinguish themselves from polygamists, saying that while polygamy consists of men taking multiple wives usually within a religious context, polyamory is consensual, secular and egalitarian.

"There's informed consent between the partners, so you can have multiple partners but they all know what's going on, they most often know each other," said Duff. "There's back-and-forth input in terms of what people are comfortable with at the get go. None of that will be found in polygamy at all."

Ruling worried polyamorists

Polyamory came to the forefront in 2011, when the  B.C. Supreme Court upheld Canada's laws against polygamy after the province launched a constitutional reference case to clarify the law. At the time, the polyamory community was worried it would be targeted if the law was upheld.

The constitutionality case was prompted after polygamy charges against two leaders of divided factions of the Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, were thrown out in 2009.

The sect, prominent in the tiny community of Bountiful in southeastern B.C., condones polygamy. However, prosecution against the two rival leaders, Winston Blackmore and James Oler, failed because the court ruled their rights were violated when the government chose its prosecutors.

Two years later, the B.C. Supreme Court concluded even though the ban against polygamy infringes on religious freedoms, the harms associated with the practice, such as child brides and sexual abuse, outweigh those rights.

The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association was an intervener in the 2011 case, and saw the B.C. Supreme Court decision as a victory because the decision also concluded anti-polygamy laws shouldn't apply to polyamorous couples unless they decide to get married.

After the ruling, John Ince, legal counsel for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, said the exclusion of polyamory from the ruling was a relief for his client.

"The formality of marriage is really not a big issue in the polyamorous community," Ince said.

But Duff said B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Bauman was unclear on what he meant with regards to marriage; however, the community is unlikely to launch a costly legal action to strive for clarity anytime soon.

For the time being, the polyamory association is focusing on raising awareness about the movement, connecting people within the community with each other, and providing people with resources such as legal advice or counselling.

The three-day convention, called "Claiming our Right to Love," included workshops on how to deal with jealousy within a polyamorist relationship, how family laws affect polyamorist households, and how newcomers to existing polyamorist relationships can be treated ethically.

Consensual and ethical non-monogamy

Tiffany Sostar, a Calgary-based student activist and panelist at the convention, said consensual, non-monogamous relationships have been happening for many years. However, polyamory has gained more public profile recently, and Sostar said the practice is becoming more acceptable within mainstream society.

Last year, Sostar brought home two partners to her family's Easter Dinner, explaining to her mother that she believes polyamory is an ethical alternative to monogamy, and that she loves multiple people.

"Even though she struggled with it, she handled it quite well," said Sostar. "She said, 'I don't understand, but I don't understand a lot of things that you do and I still love you."'

Still, Sostar says there are those who are not so accepting, and who can only equate having multiple partners with cheating.

"Probably the most negative response I got was when someone said that when they think of that type of person, they think of cesspools of disease, which was pretty awful," said Sostar. "And actually, I think it was grossly misinformed since the poly community tends to talk quite openly about safer sex practices and risk management."

With files from CBC News