Canada: Canada criticized over polygamy

Canada is violating its international human rights obligations regarding women and children by allowing polygamy to persist unchecked, says a new study commissioned by the federal Justice Department.
"Polygamy is a violation of international law," says the study's author, Rebecca Cook, a University of Toronto law professor. "Canada has an obligation as a matter of international law to take all appropriate steps."
While polygamy is technically illegal in Canada and punishable by up to five years in prison, the practice has flourished for more than 50 years in Bountiful, B.C. -- the home of a colony of adherents to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The breakaway Mormon sect teaches that men must have at least three wives to achieve eternal salvation.

After more than a decade of refusing to lay charges amid concern that the federal law is too weak to survive a constitutional challenge, the provincial Crown is conducting a fresh review of a new police report to determine if criminal prosecution is warranted.

Ms. Cook's report, posted on the Justice Department's Web site last month, is part of a broader $150,000 study about polygamy launched by the former Liberal government in 2005.

One controversial report commissioned by the Status of Women, which was published last year, called for repealing the ban on polygamy in favour of other laws to help women and children.

But Ms. Cook takes a more conventional view, maintaining that Canada is required to enforce the law because it is a signatory to numerous international treaties and conventions such as the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ms. Cook focuses solely on the practice of polygyny -- a man having more than one wife -- rather than the broader term of polygamy, which refers to either a man or a woman. (The practice of a woman having more than one male partner is called polyandry.)

Polygyny, she wrote, robs women of their entitlement to marital exclusivity, family life, security and even enjoyment of their citizenship. It also puts them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and mental-health problems.

Polygyny, therefore, also flies in the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, she says.

The Political Covenant, for example, requires signatories to "take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution."

Ms. Cook says the harm to girls in Bountiful "could be particularly serious, given that some girls reportedly enter unions at as young as 14 or 15 years of age."

The study "reaffirms the position that polygamy will remain illegal in Canada," says Justice Department spokesman Chris Girouard, adding that it remains up to individual provinces to enforce the Criminal Code.

Section 293 of the Criminal Code bans "any form of polygamy" or "any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage."

While the Justice Department insists its law is legally sound, there have been several legal opinions over the years that say the law would not withstand a constitutional challenge to the freedom of religion guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ms. Cook's study concludes there is a difference between religious beliefs and practices.

"While Canada is not entitled under international law to restrict religious belief, it is entitled and in fact obliged in some circumstances to restrict religious practices that undermine the rights and freedoms of others," she wrote.

In Bountiful, leader Winston Blackmore has admitted to having had several child "brides."

In the United States, the leader of the sect, Warren Steed Jeffs, awaits trial in Utah, where he is accused of arranging marriages between young girls and older men.

Janice Tibbetts
CanWest News Service, Monday, October 23, 2006