Scrap polygamy ban: Study

Better laws to protect women, children sought Spousal support, clear inheritance rights needed

Toronto Star/January 13, 2006
By Dean Beeby

Ottawa -- A new study for the federal justice department says Canada should get rid of its law banning polygamy, and change other legislation to help women and children living in such multiple-spouse relationships.

"Criminalization does not address the harms associated with valid foreign polygamous marriages and plural unions, in particular the harms to women," says the report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

"The report therefore recommends that this provision be repealed."

The research paper is part of a controversial $150,000 polygamy project, launched a year ago and paid for by the justice department and Status of Women Canada.

Rare in Canada, polygamy is openly practised in the religious community of Bountiful, near Creston, B.C., by a breakaway group of Mormons calling themselves the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Polygamy is also an accepted part of some religions including Islam, but Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, called it "a non-issue" for Canadian Muslims.

"It's a misguided study, a waste of taxpayer money," Elmasry told the Star's Nicolaas van Rijn.

"Polygamy is not an issue among Canadian Muslims," Elmasry said, adding: "We have more pressing issues, like the review of anti-terrorist laws which affect our lives as a minority."

Citing the notoriously inaccurate no-fly lists that have victimized innocent travellers, Elmasry said "there are more pressing issues that the ministry of justice should look into than allowing men in this country to have more than one wife."

Canada also welcomes an increasing number of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, where polygamy is legally and religiously sanctioned. Under current legislation, immigration officers can refuse entry to individuals practising polygamy.

The paper by three law professors at Queen's University in Kingston argues that Section 293 of the Criminal Code banning polygamy serves no useful purpose and in any case is rarely prosecuted.

Instead, Canadian laws should be changed to better accommodate the problems of women in polygamous marriages, providing them clearer spousal support and inheritance rights.

Currently, there's a hodgepodge of legislation across the provinces, some of which — Ontario, for example — give limited recognition to foreign polygamous marriages for the purposes of spousal support. Some jurisdictions provide no relief at all.

Chief author Martha Bailey says criminalizing polygamy, typically a marriage involving one man and several wives, serves no good purpose and prosecutions could do damage to the women and children in such relationships.

"Why criminalize the behaviour?" she asked in an interview. "We don't criminalize adultery.

"In light of the fact that we have a fairly permissive society ... why are we singling out that particular form of behaviour for criminalization?"

Instead, there are other laws available to deal with problems that are often associated with polygamous unions, which are not recognized as marriages in Canada.

"If there are problems such as child abuse, or spousal abuse, there are other criminal provisions or other laws dealing with those problems that certainly should be enforced," Bailey added.

Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said that he has seen only a summary of the research reports, but already rejects lifting the criminal ban on polygamy.

"At this point, the practice of polygamy, bigamy and incest are criminal offences in Canada and will continue to be," he said.

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