A mess for the liberal western state
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 19, 2009
In December of 2005, Lorraine Johnson and Shelina Palmer got married. It was barely five months since Canada legalized same-sex marriage and even though their fundamentalist Mormon sect apparently forbade homosexual activity, the need to tie the knot was clearly urgent. Of course, three of Winston Blackmore's American-born celestial wives, mothers to 16 of his children, had been issued deportation orders earlier in the year so perhaps there was no time to waste. After all, immigration officers seemed intent on standardizing rules that already applied to Muslims trying to import wives into Canada.
As Daphne Bramham recounts in her catalytic The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect, Lorraine and Shelina too were married to Blackmore in a religious, though not legal, ceremony. The one-time teenage brides were now fast friends but Lorraine had been part of the flood of women arriving from the U.S to become celestial brides for one of the Bountiful sect's two Canadian leaders in southeastern British Columbia. To remain in Canada as the legal spouse of Shelina, Lorraine will have to prove the marriage is not an immigration dodge Bramham suggests. In the meantime, and after years of allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation of children, trafficking of teenage brides across the Canada-U.S. border and prevarication by various B.C. attorneys general, polygamy charges were laid against Blackmore and James Oler on Jan. 7.
You have to wonder whether the tolerant, inclusive, post-modern state of which Canada is such a shining example hasn't finally managed to hoist itself on its own liberal petard. Even if the charges against Blackmore and Oler succeed (many argue they won't because of the Charter's freedom of religion provisions), Canada's same-sex marriage laws give them another option. For two women like Shelina and Lorraine who have nine of Blackmore's children between them, those laws even allow the admission of a third "parent" to the mix.
Make no mistake, this is all about children. For the church that broke away from mainstream Mormonism in 1890 when polygamy was criminalized in Canada and the U.S., the practice went underground so its adherents could pursue Old Testament orders to "go forth and multiply." As one Bountiful elder told a Vancouver Sun reporter, "The prime motive of plural marriage is to raise children. It's easier to teach your own children your beliefs than to gather up a lot of people with preconceived notions who don't understand..."
For such purposes, polygamy is arguably the most efficient instrument -- so long as there are enough women who are compliant enough and young enough to bear the necessary numbers of children. Blackmore alone is believed to have over 100 children by more than 25 wives.
Impressive numbers, to be sure, until you consider that polygamy, though still legal in many countries, is an anachronism from ancient times when women and children were considered chattel and, in modern polygamist arrangements, still are. Though the community at Bountiful is supported by a combination of entrepreneurship, tithing and some not inconsiderable government benefits thanks to large numbers of children, only one legal wife will inherit Blackmore's property. But she has no obligation to share it with his other, celestial wives and their children, some of whom may in any case be traded to other husbands.
Despite some sophisticated public relations efforts from Bountiful, Blackmore's arrest is just the latest in a series of setbacks for the larger community that include the 2007 arrest and conviction of Utah-based Warren Jeffs, leader of North America's largest polygamist sect, on charges of being an accomplice to rape.
Will convictions put an end to polygamy in Bountiful? Such questions are difficult to contemplate, not least because the answers necessarily involve the whole of the community. As Bramham notes, the separation of Doukhobor families in the 1950s was traumatic, yet it prevented the sons and daughters from perpetuating their parents' reign of terror.
In the larger political sphere, too, difficult questions arise. When and where will the enlightened western liberal draw his line in the sand about what is tolerable? In the struggle for ascendant ideology, politically or religiously based, who wins? Those who devote all their resources, including reproductive, to the perpetuation of their belief system or those who do not?
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.