Mar 19, 2011
The polygamist religious sect of Bountiful, B.C., has for years been subject to intense scrutiny.And now the very law that criminalizes polygamy is under the microscope, with final arguments about its viability filed in a B.C. Supreme Court this week. While the government defends the law, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association wants polygamy decriminalized. The group’s litigation director, Grace Pastine, spoke to the Post’s Sarah Boesveld.
Q: It’s been said that you’re siding with Bountiful in your quest to deem Canada’s polygamy laws unconstitutional. Is that the case?
A: We do not as an organization endorse or condone polygamy or plural unions generally. We don’t endorse or support any particular polygamist community. And for that matter, we don’t condone monogamy, celibacy or anything in between. Our message is very simple: Individuals should be free to make the life choices they wish to make, so long as those choices don’t harm other people and they engage with them with free, informed and full consent.
Q: How does the law violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
A: The law is unconstitutional because it violates an individual’s liberty and her right to privacy. This law intrudes into the most intimate aspect of an adult’s life, that is the decision about the best family arrangement that meets his or her needs and aspirations. It erodes the dignity of people that are involved in plural relationships and denies them the privacy that is available to other couples that are in monogamous families.
Q: If it’s so unconstitutional, why are people adamant about keeping polygamy illegal?
A: I think it’s challenging for people to be confronted with choices that are very different from their own and that might initially or continually seem strange or even distasteful. And that’s where it’s key to remember the principle of tolerance, the glue of a pluralistic, democratic society. Part of living in a free and democratic society is being tolerant of the choices other people make, even when those choices might be very different or seem very odd.
Q: Your court argument invoked former prime minister Pierre Trudeau when it said the current law “invites the state to inspect the bedrooms — and kitchens and living rooms — of consenting adults who find fulfilment in plural relationships.’ Was that intentional?
A: It was playing on that quote, and I think it resonates with people. Instinctively, most Canadians understand that the state shouldn’t be telling them whether or not their deeply personal choices in this area are legitimate or not. The government shouldn’t be telling Canadians whether or not they should be in a plural relationship anymore than it should be telling adults that only lifelong monogamy is acceptable or that divorce isn’t permitted. Those simply aren’t choices for the state to make.
Q: When people think of polygamy, they almost always think of exploitation and abuse of children and women. How do you expect to steer attention from that to people’s core constitutional rights?
A: We certainly understand and believe that terrible crimes have been committed against some participants in polygamous relationships and that there is terrible abuse that has occurred in polygamous communities. That, I think, is beyond debate. And certainly those abuses need to be prevented and they warrant the fullest possible redress. But harm can occur in monogamist relationships just as it does in polygamous relationships. The mountain of evidence that was before the court simply didn’t establish there were any harms that were specific and inherent to plural relationships.
Q: So you’re saying polygamy itself doesn’t breed abuse, it’s individuals?
A: That’s right. I think in particularly patriarchal relationships where women have little or no power, few economic resources, it’s more likely that abuse will occur.
Q: So what would then happen to groups like Bountiful if decriminalization occurred?
A: I can’t tell you how exactly people in Bountiful would respond one way or another. What I can say is that the data we have, which is, frankly, not particularly reliable, would suggest that the number of people who engage in plural relationships is very, very small and it is unlikely, if there is decriminalization, that there would really be any change in those numbers. It’s a minority practice and it’s bound to remain that for the future.
Q: Why then take it up as a cause?
A: We’re concerned whenever the state, in our view, unjustifiably seeks to criminalize adult consensual activities that are made freely and with full consent. Certainly the government has considered this a worthy project by outlawing it and then convening a constitutional reference that’s lasted months and brought forth vast bodies of information on the topic. We think it’s important that there is a voice for people that might be too scared to speak up.