US & Canada

Polygamy in Canada: How many wives can a man have?

School in Bountiful - 2008
Image caption Young women at a school in Bountiful

An unusual legal test case is taking place in Canada aimed at clarifying whether polygamy is a crime. Does the country's anti-polygamy law violate a constitutional guarantee of the freedom of religion? Over the next few months, a court will decide.

Cradled in the picturesque Creston Valley, near the province of British Columbia's border with the US, is the secluded hamlet of Bountiful.

What distinguishes this settlement of some 1,200 from its rural neighbours is that many of its residents openly practise polygamy. The community has done so for more than half a century, even though polygamy is illegal under Section 293 of Canada's Criminal Code.

Bountiful's residents are part of a fundamentalist breakaway Mormon sect, which believes that a man must marry at least three wives in order, one day, to enter heaven.

Image caption A court case against Winston Blackmore collapsed due to technicalities

The mainstream Mormon Church - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - banned the practice more than a century ago.

But, while polygamy is technically illegal, punishable with up to five years in prison, there has only been one successful prosecution - an 1899 conviction against an indigenous man from the Kainai nation who practised a form of customary marriage.

British Columbia has been criticised for allowing polygamy to flourish, but part of the reason for the failure to prosecute is the link with religion - under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the freedom of religion is guaranteed as a constitutional right.


Over the past 20 years, Bountiful has been at the centre of allegations of child abuse, coerced marriages and teenage bride-trafficking between Canada and the US.

In 2009, the community's rival leaders, Winston Blackmore and James Oler, faced trial for polygamy.

Mr Blackmore was charged with having 20 wives.

Nine of his wives were minors when they married, and four of them were aged 15 when they married, according to an affidavit filed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2009.

Mr Oler was charged with having two wives.

On several occasions, Blackmore has openly admitted to having sex with 15- and 16-year-olds.

One of these admissions came in 2005 at a "polygamy summit" organised by his wives, where they tried to explain polygamy as lifestyle choice practised by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the 10,000-member sect that broke away from the Mormon Church in the 1930s.

The trial failed on a technicality. It had been seen as a test case, but the collapse left the question of whether a prosecution could stand up to the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom unanswered.

'Aunt in the attic'

Polygamy is also illegal in the US, and, in 2005, authorities in the US and British Columbia agreed to co-operate in pursuing allegations of sexual exploitation by the group.

But officials have spoken of the difficulties in investigating allegations because the communities are so secretive, and few are willing to come forward as witnesses.

Image caption More than 1,000 people live in the community of Bountiful

Jan Shipps, a leading non-Mormon scholar of Mormons in the US, describes polygamy as "the crazy aunt in the attic".

"Everyone knows about it but they pretend it's not there," she told the BBC News website.

Historically, there have been difficulties prosecuting people who practise plural marriages, she says.

"It is only the first marriage that is licenced, so it becomes a question of prosecuting people who are living together in an unmarried situation.

"In Utah and Arizona, they turn a blind eye to it unless either it becomes obvious that 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds are involved, or there is an abuse of government assistance programmes."

Since the man is legally only married to his first wife, his other wives can qualify for welfare as single mothers, she explains.

Drawing lines

In Canada, most Canadians - 82% - are opposed to legalising polygamy, according to a Compass poll conducted in 2006 for the Institute of Canadian Values and the Vancouver Sun.

Lawyers representing the attorneys-general of Canada and British Columbia are likely to try to prove that polygamy is harmful to women. One argument could be that religious freedoms might be overriden in a particular situation, such as polygamy, if it can be proved that allowing the freedom will cause harm to others.

Daphne Bramham, a journalist from the Vancouver Sun who has followed the Bountiful community for years and written a book on it - The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect - argues polygamy in Bountiful is far from a lifestyle choice.

"Within that particular group, those women have absolutely no choice. They are separated from the mainstream community. They're not educated in public schools," Ms Bramham says, referring to the community's isolation from mainstream Canada.

There are two independent schools in the area, Mormon Hills School and Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School that cumulatively receive up to 1m Canadian dollars (£615,000) in funding from the BC Ministry of Education.

Both schools adhere to the guidelines for independent schools and, as such, are eligible for that funding.

While the instinct is to worry most over the potential harms to women and children, Bramham also points to unexpected victims - the "lost boys".

In polygynous sects where a man has more than one wife, not all men can have wives.

Lost boys are the left-over, wifeless men who eventually leave their community but with a great mistrust of the world and few applicable life-skills, Bramham says.

At the same time, young men are necessary to the community.

"They are treated as slave labour. The boys are the economic engine," Bramham says.

"Boys are encouraged to work hard with the promise that if they are good, they may get a wife."

Ms Bramham paints an picture of a town overrun with women and children, with trampolines and toys strewn about, but lacking in one thing: choice.

"You have no choice about who you marry. Not even about who you work for," Bramham says.

"If you only know one choice, you will make that choice."

But some legal experts worry that the criminalisation of polygamy could hurt the women that the law was intending to help.

"Even if women are harmed by polygamy, women can be charged as well and I see no value in up to five years of incarceration. It's nonsense," says Beverly Baines, a law professor at Queens University.

"The most common misconception is that criminalising does something. It achieves nothing," Ms Baines says.

This is a landmark case, and if the court-appointed lawyer successfully argues that the law violates Charter rights and should be struck down, Canada will become the first country in the developed world to decriminalise polygamy.