By Jodi A. Shaw
Last week, Angela Campbell, a professor of law at McGill University, testified at a constitutional reference case examining Canada’s current polygamy law that the practice ought to be decriminalized. I wasn’t sure if I should gasp or applaud.
Campbell visited Bountiful, B.C. in 2008 and 2009, interviewing 22 women over a total of approximately 11 days. The small polygamist community near Creston has been the centre of much criticism, after questions were raised regarding child brides and forced marriages.
The women, who volunteered to be interviewed, told Campbell they were happy, healthy, and had control over their body and reproductive decisions. So where’s the harm, right?
Polygamy has been illegal in Canada since 1890 and not without just cause. Historically, polygamy has often ignored the rights of women, treating them instead as voiceless, husband-pleasing baby-makers. And most women will not argue with a law that attempts to save them from oppression.
By contrast, the women of Bountiful, in Campbell’s opinion, are not oppressed by their husbands but by the law. The anti-polygamy statute renders them silent and fearful to reach out for services or speak out against other crimes, for fear of exposing themselves as members of a polygamist family and put them at risk of having their children taken away.
It is a fear shared by other polygamists, including acquaintances of mine, who live a normal life, in a normal house, far from any polygamist community.
They live a life of secrets, Steve* told me. In order to feel safe and accepted in their community, they disguise their relationship and discuss it with few people. Not that they like it that way.
Steve and Laura* have been together for over 15 years, and have a child. Almost four years ago, Megan joined the family. While one of the women is more outgoing than the other, they are far from submissive, and Steve is not remotely sexist or domineering. All three entered the relationship respectfully and willingly.
I can’t personally imagine myself sharing my husband with another woman, but Laura and Megan seem comfortable and happy in their lives. When on their own with Steve, they are affectionate, jovial, and immersed in each other’s company. As a family, they go on bike rides and do yard work together, though they have to refrain from affection or anything else that would reveal their dynamic.
Since Steve and Laura are more established as a couple, have been together longer, and are parents to the child, Megan often has to take a back seat when they are in public or around people who recognize Steve and Laura as a couple, but are unaware of Megan’s role. It’s a step back that leaves her feeling somewhat ostracized and alone. That’s where the real oppression occurs, according to Steve.
They worry that if they are open about their relationship, the child will be taken from the home — from the happy, healthy home in which they all live. So they hide.
All three entered the relationship as individuals and consenting adults, and all three report that, while they may sometimes deal with issues and struggles that do not exist in monogamous relationships, they feel content and loved. The secrecy is taxing, but they do not complain. They acknowledge, though, that many of the complications and stresses in their lives would be resolved if polygamy were legal.
So a part of me would like to see the law changed, for their sake. However, there’s a big difference between three adults down the street choosing to live in a multi-member relationship, and religious fundamentalists living in polygamous communities like Bountiful.
Grilled by lawyers for the attorneys-general of Canada and B.C., as well as the organization Stop Polygamy in Canada, Campbell admitted that she had not determined whether the women she interviewed had been told what to say by their husbands or their religious leader, Winston Blackmore. (In 2009, Blackmore and another Bountiful leader were charged with polygamy; after the charges were quashed, the Province of B.C. asked for the current examination of the law.) Campbell said she was concerned about insulting the women, but the history of fundamentalist polygamy suggests that hard questions need to be asked.
Before we sanction polygamy we need to know a lot more about allegations that girls as young as 13 have been brought to Bountiful to become brides (Blackmore denies the charge), about the teenage girls who become pregnant at the settlement, about tales told by Debbie Palmer and other apostates’ of sexual molestation and forced marriage. Until we do, decriminalizing polygamy across the board, while it would make life happier for my acquaintances, is not the solution. Not yet.
* Not their real names