A woman who grew up in a polygamous family and lived for 28 years in a polygamous marriage says she's shocked and saddened to learn Canada has quashed an opportunity to put polygamy on trial.
"If something isn't done, women will keep on being abused and coerced into living lives that they don't want to [live]," said Irene Spencer in a telephone interview from her home in Lodi, California. "It breaks my heart because I've been there."
In a case that was widely anticipated to test Canada's polygamy laws against freedom of religion, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein yesterday threw out polygamy charges against Winston Blackmore and James Oler, two rival leaders from polygamous communities near Bountiful, B.C.
The charges against Blackmore, 52, were linked to his alleged marriages to 19 women. The charges against Oler, 44, were linked to his alleged marriages to three women.
According to previously published reports, documents presented in court earlier this year, which were compiled by the RCMP, indicated Blackmore had taken several underage brides.
Spencer, 74, says it's concerns over the effects of polygamy on women and children that has her devoting her energies to speaking out against polygamy.
Author of Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife, she was born into a polygamous family in Utah, like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother also had been before her.
Raised in a fringe community of Mormon fundamentalists, Spencer was one of 31 children in her large family. "You can imagine being lost in the shuffle of 31 children," she said
The Mormon Church banned polygamy 119 years ago this week, but FLDS groups continue the practice.
"My own father was arrested in 1944 for polygamy in Salt Lake City," said Spencer. "He spent more than two years in prison for polygamy … so it was our mothers' duty to indoctrinate us."
Taught to believe that polygamy was not only expected — but required — to receive the rewards of heaven, in 1953, she married Verlan LeBaron, a man who was already married to her half-sister. She was 16 on her wedding day. Spencer would go on to have 13 children with LeBaron, and to see him take another eight wives. She describes her life at the time as one of poverty, drudgery and despair.
"Girls are denied education. Many girls married at 14 and 15. The men always say ‘marry them young so you can train them.' They're told all they need to know is how to keep house and raise children, so it makes it impossible for women to move into the outside world. They can't leave the family because they don't have the skills to survive on their own. The men make the rules."
Told of the September 23 ruling, Spencer said Canada has lost an important opportunity to ensure equality for all, no matter their age or gender. "Religion has no right to cover up abuse," she said. "Abuse hidden under the guise of religion is absolutely wrong."
FLDS groups aren't the only ones who practice polygamy. Other fringe sects and some fundamentalist Muslims also engage in polygamous marriage. But according to Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, polygamous marriage is an "oppressive institution."
"It's all about dominance, control and power structures," she says, noting that "extremely young" Muslim women have been imported to Canada for the purpose of becoming polygamous wives. "I'm not even sure that their consent counts in such cases," Hassan said.
"Freedom of religion has to be seen within the larger human rights issue. And if human rights are being trumped by a religious practice, then that's not acceptable."
Spencer agrees. A self-described born-again Christian today, living in a monogamous marriage, she says she found real freedom only through coming to a new understanding of and relationship with God, and it's her faith that motivates her today.
"It is abuse for parents to marry [their girls off as] child brides, and for them to have babies so soon. I think it's an absolute crime when a woman has a dozen or more children, so five-year olds have to change diapers and work, work, work. It is child slavery," Spencer said.
"I want to be that voice for every woman who through fear, remains silent."