“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” Pierre Trudeau famously said in 1967.
A ruling by B.C.’s top judge last month waded into this very area, upholding Canada’s 121-year-old polygamy ban in a ruling that is both controversial and divisive.
The ruling stemmed from questions arising from the 2009 failed prosecution on polygamy charges of two fundamentalist Mormon leaders from Bountiful, B.C. One of those men, Winston Blackmore, is reported to have married 25 times and fathered more than 100 children.
“Historically, polygamy from a social point of view made sense,” says Nick Bala, a law professor at Queen’s University who acted as an expert witness in the trial. “If there are wars and lots of men are getting killed off, it works well. But in a modern industrialized society, it’s very problematic.”
According to Bala, Chief Justice Robert Bauman’s ruling was fair.
“I think this is a socially sound decision that promotes the interests of women and children,” Bala says. “One of the concerns (relating to polygamy) is that it’s inherently unequal in terms of gender.
“Another concern is that…in societies where polygamous marriage is legalized…some men become more powerful and wealthy and end up having several wives and many men on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale have no wives,” he says. “The effect of (plural marriage) is not to empower women. It’s to commodify them.”
Bala also cites social problems such as higher crime rates and women and girls being coerced into marriage by their parents and elders. According to the RCMP, nine of Blackmore’s 25 wives were under the age of 18 when they married him.
Against the social concerns polygamy raises, Bauman’s ruling had to balance the right to freedom of religion, guaranteed in Canada’s Charter.
“Fundamentally, what the judge said is that yes, this law does infringe on religious freedom of fundamentalist Mormons,” says Bala. “But because there is so much harm associated with polygamy for women and children, it is constitutionally permissible to restrict freedom of religion in this way.”
When I ask if those practising polyandry – a woman with multiple husbands who don’t want children, say – are also causing harm, Bala says such arrangements are rare.
He is quick to clarify the law against polygamy has no impact on polyamory — as long as there are no plural wedding ceremonies involved, the polyamorous can live together without violating the law.
“The government is not getting the police to come knock on every door where there are three adults to say, ‘Where are you sleeping?’” Bala says.
Given there may be an appeal process, the million-dollar question remains: Does the state have any place in the bedrooms of the nation, even if it’s a rustic seven-bedroom farmhouse?
Bev Baines, a professor of gender studies at Queen’s University, does not believe the state has any right to intervene and finds Bauman’s ruling concerning.
“Although the judge claimed he believed that polygamy harms women, he has imposed more harm on women living in polygamous relationships by making them criminals,” Baines says. “How does threatening women with prosecution for living in polygamy improve their lives?”
(In his ruling, Bauman says minors in polygamous marriages should be exempt from prosecution.)
The restriction of personal and religious freedoms and the criminalization of already vulnerable Canadian women (among them, immigrants from countries where polygamy is legal) has me siding with Baines.
While no fan of polygamy, in her video affidavit, Blackmore’s ex-wife Ruth Lane evenly stated, “If my daughter does choose that lifestyle, I’d very much like for her to be able live it within the law.”
No one should be allowed to take freedom of choice away from others. Not the devout parents of a frightened young Mormon fundamentalist girl. Not Winston Blackmore. And, when it relates to matters of the heart and the bedroom, certainly not the state.
Sexy Typewriter blogs about her dating failures – online and otherwise – at Ssexytypewriter.com.