Shopping for a legal team to prosecute polygamy in Canada is tougher than shopping for a harem. How can it be easier to maintain 19 women in a polygamous relationship than to find a court able to enforce Canada's Criminal Code against polygamy? It's a symptom of tolerance, injustice and, ironically, the Charter of Rights.
Exhibit A: Winston Blackmore and James Oler. Both men are rival leaders in the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. In January, after two decades of debate and several police probes in Bountiful, Mr. Blackmore was charged with having 19 wives, Mr. Oler with two. Last week, the case was quashed by the B.C. Supreme Court; the former B.C. attorney-general, it said, had unfairly gone "special prosecutor shopping" to find one who wanted to press charges.
Mr. Blackmore said he was only guilty of living out his religion, a fundamentalist Mormon belief. Wally Oppal, the former attorney-general, had concerns about such beliefs and disagreed with legal opinions that advised him not to lay polygamy charges on the grounds that such charges would not withstand the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.
Exhibit B: A case of lost common sense. Common sense intuitively tells us that, when religious belief can harm women and children, that belief is wrong. Maybe such common sense drove Mr. Oppal to push so hard. By shopping around for a prosecutor who'd prosecute, the judge said, Mr. Oppal "upset the critical balance that … should be kept between political interference and accountability." Common sense, apparently, was "political interference."
Sadly, the women who will never have their voice heard on this issue are the casualties.
"It is contrary to every fibre of a woman's being to be manipulated and to be a multiple wife," said Irene Spencer, a former polygamous wife. In 1953, at 16, she became the second wife of her brother-in-law, Verlan LeBaron, and lived as one of his 10 wives for 28 years in the U.S. and Mexico. Nine of her cousins committed suicide during that time, and she wrestled five years for the inner strength and resources to escape. Her memoir, Shattered Dreams , has been helping women abandon polygamy. One of her sons gave the book to his five wives; two left him.
Mrs. Spencer says Canada is turning a blind eye to the abuse of women in its avoidance of prosecuting polygamy. Courts will never hear from these victims as their freedoms are restricted by the very nature of the religious beliefs that support polygamy.
Exhibit C: Polygamous men in Canada are now empowered to continue oppressing women. Farzana Hassan, former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, says there are more than 100 polygamous marriages in her Toronto community of Muslims. Sheik Alaa Elsayed, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Centre of Canada, describes the polygamy practised here as "a beautiful flower." He says Muslims would "absolutely" fight in court to maintain polygamous families. "Not every man can handle more than one wife, but I will emphasize it is an option that you don't have to take. It's a solution, a legitimate option."
In Canada's diverse Muslim community, not all would think polygamy is a useful method to accommodate sexual desire or that Islam is able to govern its practice. "You don't impose a condition of justice on an institution which is inherently unjust," says Ms. Hassan. "You can do it on a neutral institution but not an institution like polygamy where it's all about dominance and … power structures."
Parliament is our only solution. Our political leaders must have the will to clarify the Criminal Code on polygamy, to declare that human rights must always trump religious rights. If we don't speak up for these voiceless women, their subculture will grow, their education diminish, and the freedom of their children will evaporate. Marriage, after all, is about strengthening society, not weakening it.
Lorna Dueck is executive producer of Listen Up TV.