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10.7.04

Is Polygamy The Problem?

Hunting Bountiful

They like to think they do a good job protecting women's rights and fighting paedophilia. Canadians would not be so smug if they knew of the dirty little secret in the Creston Valley, in south-eastern British Columbia. For half a century, a hotbed of polygamy has quietly flourished there in a commune called Bountiful. It is run by a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church, in successful defiance of the law.

Bountiful is no secret to local people, some of whom enjoy its business. Nor is it to the province's police and social workers. It is known to British Columbia's top law-enforcement officer, the attorney-general. His office was first made aware of concerns about Bountiful more than a decade ago. But the provincial government has felt constrained by an untested legal opinion that Canada's law banning polygamy was unconstitutional.

Bountiful claims allegiance to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Based in Utah, this dissenting Mormon sect teaches that men must have three or more wives and as many children as possible to enter heaven. The role of women and girls is to serve men. If women disobey men, their souls will burn in hell for eternity.

... Both groups run schools. These receive grants from the provincial government totalling more than C$600,000 ($450,000) a year. Yet critics say they provide minimal education, preparing boys only to work on Bountiful's farms and forests and girls to be "young brides and mothers". Women who have fled tell of girls as young as 13 being married off to polygamous men three times their age; of babies born to girls of 14 and 15; and of under-age girls being brought in from similar American communes for arranged marriages and to serve as "breeding stock".


Now, perhaps this is non-lawyer naievete speaking, but it seems to me that when you're not sure whether a law is constitutional, the thing to do is not to ignore it, effectively endorsing the view that it's unconstitutional. The thing to do is to charge someone and see whether the court allows it. Then you'd know where you stood, and you could either get on with enforcing it, or do the opposite with a clear conscience.

It also seems that even if polygamy is unconstitutional in Canada, that shouldn't stop the police from cracking down on Bountiful. Indeed, the fact that one man has multiple wives seems to be the least of the injustices -- if it even is one at all -- when set next to coercion into marrying someone, underage marriage, severe inequality between partners, and restrictions on children's educational and mental development. If the polygamy law is upheld and allows them to prosecute the people of Bountiful, that's all well and good, but it seems to be more a proxy solution than a direct attack on the main problem.

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