The sentencing this week of Winston Blackmore and James Oler after a decades-long polygamy case in B.C. has shone a light on the laws surrounding the practice in Canada.
But why is polygamy illegal, and why is it considered to be a bad thing? That’s what host Niki Reitmayer finds out on this week’s episode of Global News’ original podcast, This is Why.
Ten of Blackmore’s wives were 17 years old when he married them, three were 16, and one was 15 years old. Together, they had 145 children. Oler married five women in so-called “celestial” marriages.
Wally Oppal was the Attorney General of B.C. when the prosecution commenced against members of the polygamist community in Bountiful.
He told This is Why that because the age of consent at the time was 14, and the witnesses were unwilling to testify, there was no possibility of bringing charges of child abuse. That prompted the prosecution to consider polygamy charges — despite concerns that the polygamy section of the criminal code violated the protection of religious freedom provided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“My opinion always was that no right in the criminal code is absolute, and every right has limitations. That polygamy section was put there for a very good reason, to protect women, and protect children. So we went ahead with the polygamy charge at that time,” Oppal says.
He adds that if the offences took place today, the parameters would be different as the age of consent currently is 16 years of age.
Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First, the office of sexual violence support and education at Ryerson University, also spoke to This is Why. Khan says that while consenting adult relationships are fine, she takes exception to religious arguments being used to enforce patriarchal values.
“It’s horrifying to hear of children being sealed in marriage to some of these religious leaders. Who gets protected, and who doesn’t, under the guise of protecting religious rights?
“If someone can weaponize religion to rationalize their patriarchy and their ideas of what they are owed, or what they see the world as, why are we going along with it at the cost of girls being safe, and women being safe, and boys being safe? The cost is too high.
“Polygamy in itself, when practised with respect and dignity to all parties, and when everyone gets a choice, is okay. When we take the consent out of polygamy, that’s not polygamy. That’s forced marriage.”
WATCH: Judge rejects Blackmore and Oler’s challenge of polygamy laws
The polygamist community in Bountiful, B.C., has been left to its own devices for many years, according to Oppal. He says previous governments were reluctant to get involved as no complaints had been received from the people involved. That, along with the concerns about impacting religious freedoms, gave “carte blanche” to what was going on.
“It was my opinion that there was ample evidence of sexual exploitation of young children, particularly girls under the age of 16. I asked the police to re-open the investigation, and they did.”
And it impacts negatively on the boys, too, according to Khan.
“These boys are also told this is how things are done and they have to participate in the patriarchy and marriages. On their wedding night, they too might not want to be married to the person they’re being told to get married to, whom their uncle, or grandfather, or religious leader, has ordained as the bride for them.
“They too might not want to have sex that night. It can be coercive rape or sexual assault for them, too,” Khan concludes.
John O’Dowd is a co-producer on This is Why and Alan Regan is a producer for Global News Radio 980 CKNW.