Monday 31 January 2011

Polygamy at its worst

Polygamists would have you believe that polygamy is right for their people and that fairness and justice in such communities is paramount. That isn’t necessarily true.

Teenage girls from such communities are transported over the border between the United States and Canada for the purpose of sex and breeding. That’s what is called human trafficking. Underage girls, below the age of consent, conscripted into conjugal relationships is what is called sexual assault. Adolescent boys driven from their homes by men middle-aged and older fathers, church and community leaders who are as perceived rivals in the competition for nubile mates, that’s what is called societal engineering and is also a form of abuse.

Section 293 of the Canadian Criminal Code is as clear as arch legalese will allow, forbidding conjugal union with more than one married partner at the same time, 'whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage.'

However, the law does not limit the number of people who can live together and call themselves a family. The law is not concerned with how many consenting adults are parties to a relationship. If your thing is a ménage à trois, or a partner-swapping quartet, or all-male or all-female or transvestite or transgendered or howsoever polyamorous — the vogue term for an intimate cleaving that involves more than two willing adults — the state will not bring you to trial. It’s your business and not that often state. The late former prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau said it best when he said that whatever goes on in the bedrooms of the state is not the concern of the state.

But polygamous marriage within the rubric of religion — the coercion and sexual exploitation of girls, whether agreeable to those females or not, and the trafficking in humans required to sustain a polygamous community — is rightly defined as a crime. Only in Canada would this be a matter of constitutional challenge—which just goes to show how far the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been co-opted, manipulated, to turn fundamental concepts on their head in the ever-unraveling tapestry of classic Western democracy.

A rather dangerous ideal of multiculturalism almost sneaked sharia law into Ontario a few years ago when Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, foolishly advocated selling out women to Islamic fundamentalists in the name of minority rights and religious equivalency. That this would have institutionalized patriarchy and affirmed inequalities in inheritance rights, divorce and child custody had she succeeded.

Now, in British Columbia, a similar exercise in brain-seizure pedantry is being played out before Supreme Court Justice Robert Bauman with a ‘reference case’ constitutional challenge to the Criminal Code section that criminalizes polygamy.

The FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is not a benign religious sect, like the gentle Amish. It has engendered quantifiable harm in Bountiful, a town of about 1,000 fundamentalist practitioners. While practitioners of plural marriage (and take that to mean exclusively one husband with several or even more wives) in Bountiful, B.C., have come forward to defend their lifestyle (does that mean their faith and religious cult?), when they are asking the court to strike down a law they claim criminalizes unconventional relationships.

This is absurdly untrue. The law doesn’t force monogamy on married people. And the law does not render illegal the cohabitation of however many people choose to live as a family nor dictate their sleeping arrangements.

Canadians can have sex with as many people as they like. No. What’s criminalized is pluralized wedlock where, despite the absence of any recognized civil union —i.e. a marriage licence — women, young girls, are often scooped up from cult Mormon communes in the U.S., transported across the border under false pretenses, isolated in a hideaway valley enclave, impregnated as teenagers and treated as broodmares, rearing upwards of 30 children under one room with their 'sister-wives,' with no legal status as a genuine spouse in the event of 're-assignment' to another husband, and with no legal recourse to marital property rights or spousal support obligations — which are also the historical and legal underpinnings of wedlock.

Some woman apparently enjoy this enslavement and seek it out because they were raised in like-minded communes around Utah and Colorado and Texas; the excommunicated pockets of fundamentalist Mormon splinter cults that defied their church’s renouncing of polygamy more than a century ago. That being as it is, it is not surprising and even less relevant that this is their wish. Whether brainwashed or culturally kneaded to it, these obedient daughters of one daddy and multiple moms, who embrace polygamy can’t possibly justify a form of legal acceptance for plural marriages.

This isn’t just about the individuals directly involved. It’s about all citizens because they, too, have an ethical stake in acceptance or rejection of polygamy. The civil libertarian view on polygamous marriage is misguided because plural wives sexualizes children, estranges boys from their communities and it is a clear affront to the equality of women. It is harmful to all participants in such a community.

The harms documented at Bountiful are the perfectly predictable — indeed the inevitable — consequences of a polygamous society.’’ B.C. government lawyer Craig Jones told the court when this hearing began more than two months ago. He said, "Bountiful did not create polygamy. Polygamy created Bountiful."

Three separate Bountiful plural wives bleated from the witness stand this week — that they had the right to be left alone, to do as they like, or as demanded by their faith. A faith that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, their own Mother Church has deemed as a breakaway apostate and invalid sect.

And that’s just the females’ position. What of the young males, several of whom have appeared at the B.C. hearing or filed affidavits describing how they were forced to leave Bountiful at age 14 or 15, because old coots, (their own leaders) fear sharing the limited female gene-pool?

What about Bountiful men, those who married teenaged girls and impregnated them? They are, on average, 8.2 years older than their teen wives, according to statistical evidence filed in court last week. The data indicate that 142 Bountiful fathers have, on average, 5.7 children each. Seven of the 142 men have 14 children each. Another seven fathers have 233 offspring among them; that's an average of 33 each. Those are shocking statistics, but on their own they cannot lead to allegations of crime.

Figures from the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency, filed as an affidavit last week, are shocking: 833 babies were born to 215 mothers over 13 years, although the numbers are likely higher since the agency tracked births associated only with the community’s 14 most common surnames. A third of those mothers — 85 were 18 or younger when they gave birth, seven times the provincial rate for teen moms.

Two of the teens had three children each by the time they were 18; 16 had two children each. What the figures show is that one in 10 babies were born to teenage girls even though the FLDS allegedly ceased performing under-age marriages in 2008 and 45 per cent of Bountiful mothers are foreign-born. They probably came from the United States.

One man alone — spiritual leader Winston Blackmore, the 54-year-old self-styled former bishop of Bountiful has had at least 107 children from his more than 20 wives. He’s not a bigamist, he is a pigamist. What happens if he is unable to pay support for these children? Will the taxpayers have to subsidize the support of his brood?

Why do the people in Bountiful want so many children? The answer can be found in the statement of one of the women living there. Jorjina Broadbent recalls being told by her husband, “It's not quality we're looking for, it's quantity. How many children can we have before this life is up? Have as many babies as you can.”

According to an affidavit sworn last week by a director of B.C.'s Vital Statistics Agency, there were 28,740 teen births in the province from 1986 and 2009. That's 2.7% of all births in B.C. for the period. Meanwhile, there were 833 births by Bountiful women; of those, 85—or 10.2%—were teen births.

The B.C. government tried prosecuting Blackmore and James Oler who are dueling bishops in the internally split sect for polygamy in 2009 but the charges were stayed because a judge found they had been improperly laid by a special prosecutor improperly appointed. That led to this broader hearing on the constitutionality of Section 293 of the Criminal Code.

For nearly three decades previously, the government had been frustrated in applying a law they worried would not stand a constitutional challenge. It was a gamble they were unwilling to take so Bountiful was allowed to let slide. The consequences of that approach are evident in these ghastly statistics.

If the law is struck down; an issue that will inevitably be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, however Bauman rules. Canada will become the only developed nation to legalize marriage between more than two people. That does not make us more progressive than the rest of the world. It makes us look more foolish than the rest of the world.

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