A-G must eradicate the blemish of polygamy in Bountiful, B.C.

Authorities cannot continue to avoid investigating allegations of abuse of girls and women behind the shield of religion

Vancouver Sun

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Canadians understandably wax indignant when we hear of polygamy, inequality and the abuse of women and girls in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

Yet we're a lot quieter when we hear of our own private Taliban, which conducts its business in Bountiful, B.C., near the Canada-U.S. border.

As Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham explained in a series of recent columns, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, has for years been practising polygamy with impunity in a small community near Creston.

Although the Criminal Code prohibits polygamy, and although the Creston RCMP recommended in 1992 that charges be laid against members of the FLDS, successive B.C. attorneys-general have refused to prosecute on the grounds that the polygamy law would not likely withstand a Charter challenge.

A number of federal attorneys-general, including our current A-G, Irwin Cotler , don't share that view, but the law does appear problematic.

The primary difficulty lies in the fact that Canadian law only permits marriage between two people. If a married man chooses to marry another woman, the second marriage is null and void and the man can be prosecuted for bigamy.

So it's legally impossible to be married to more than one person at a time. Men in Bountiful get around this by registering their first marriage and then marrying successive wives through their church, but not through the state.

That means that, in law, the men in Bountiful are only married to one woman each. They're still violating the polygamy law because the Criminal Code outlaws multiple marriages even if those marriages aren't recognized by the state. But since the law allows men to live with, and sleep with, more than one woman at a time, the only people who can be prosecuted for such communal living are those who have participated in church marriages.

As such, the polygamy law seems to have the effect (if not the intent) of directly attacking religion, and B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant is right to have concerns about the constitutionality of the law.

Nevertheless, since polygamy harms women, children and families, uncertainty about the law is no reason not to use it. Rather, if the law is declared unconstitutional in court, it simply means Parliament will have to rewrite the law in a constitutionally sound way.

In addition to using the polygamy law, there are many other measures authorities can take. Although one can argue that polygamy is at the root of all manner of abuses, all of this emphasis on the problems with the polygamy law has served to distract justice officials from what is alleged to be occurring in Bountiful. This isn't a case of adult women freely entering into marriages with adult men; it is, rather, a case of girls as young as 13 or 14 reportedly being coerced into marrying men as much as 40 years their senior.

Girls in Bountiful are taught that they exist to serve men and produce babies. If they dare to question such beliefs, they're told that they'll burn in hell for eternity.

That's tragic, but it's difficult for the law to intervene in what parents teach their children (provided, of course, that the children receive schooling that conforms to the curriculum sanctioned by the ministry of education.)

Nevertheless, there is much that Mr. Plant and other justice officials and law enforcement personnel can and should be doing. Several women who left Bountiful have challenged Mr. Plant to do something about allegations that girls are being sexually abused in Bountiful and trafficked between Bountiful and FLDS communities in Utah and Arizona.

Instead of worrying about the constitutionality of the polygamy law, Mr. Plant should at the very least launch an investigation to see if charges can be brought on these much more serious allegations.

After all, it might very well be illegal for many of the men of Bountiful to takes wives under 18 years of age. Although the age of consent for sexual activity in Canada is 14, it's a crime for anyone in a position of authority to have sex with anyone under the age of 18.

Since many men in Bountiful are church elders or occupy other positions of authority, there's likely a large number of girls that would and should be off limits to them. And if men are marrying (and having sex with) 13-year-olds, then they are by definition in violation of the law.

The allegations of trafficking are also troubling, given that we usually hear about trafficking in Asian countries, not right here in our own province. But it's incumbent upon justice officials to take those allegations seriously -- in 1993, Citizenship and Immigration Canada confirmed it's awareness of teenage girls being transferred between B.C. and the U.S. -- and to lay charges if there's sufficient evidence.

Any investigation will be difficult, given the likely resistance of many people in Bountiful to provide information. But clearly, some women are willing to come forward, and Mr. Plant and other justice officials must make sure that women have the necessary supports.

That's precisely what Marl Shurtleff , Mr. Plant's counterpart in Utah, did when he declared war on polygamous communes in his state. Mr. Shurtleff has laid charges for everything from sex offences to welfare fraud to tax evasion, but has also worked to ensure that women have shelters to go to, and enough lawyers to work on the women's custody cases.

As Mr. Shurtleff has recognized, this isn't primarily about polygamy. It's about a religious sect -- one with all the hallmarks of a cult -- that stands accused of engaging in child sexual abuse, among other things.

As a society, we've always considered the abuse of children among the most egregious of offences, yet if we're unwilling to even investigate the allegations in Bountiful, we're hardly backing up our values with action.

To use a Biblical metaphor, we can't look at the speck in the eyes of our neighbours -- be they in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia -- until we remove the log from our own.

The Vancouver Sun 2004