Bountiful is a ‘breakaway Mormon’ community near Creston, B.C. It has been an object of controversy and fascination for many years due to the tolerated practice of ‘polygamy’ under its leader,Â Winston Blackmore. The whole thing has me totally stumped.
First, to get this perfectly clear: there is more going on at Bountiful than simply ‘polygamy’, and it’s not good. There are allegations of kidnapping, of smuggling yound women over the border as child brides, and of forced marriages. These are grievous human rights violations, and obviously, they deserve investigation and prosecution. At the very least, the situation seems patriarchal and manipulative. That much I get. But the ‘polygamy’ thing, which gets headlined every time â€“ i simply do not understand.
Now, as far as I know, Canadian law does not place any limit on how many people we can have sex with, either sequentially or simultaneously. We are permitted to have primary partners and secondary partners, friends-with-benefits, threesomes, foursomes, and moresomesâ€¦right? We can hook up through conventional means, or through websites or classified ads or executive dating services or bar-room encounters, or ‘polyamory nights’ at the local club. As long as everyone’s happy with the arrangement, and all are consenting adults, it is perfectly legal – right? Right.
Also, as I understand, in this country we can jump over the broom, we can have full-moon handfastings, we can have commitment ceremonies and relationship declarations of any sort we like, with pretty much whomever we like, as long as long as they are fully consenting adults. We are under no legal obligation to pay City Hall $100 for a certificate to legitimize our relationshipsÂ ($125 if you want the paper framed, which is extortion â€“ the frame is junk). We are free to define our relationships as we choose, and we can introduce our bed-buddies as partners, husbands, best of friends, or simply, ‘Pat’ or ‘Terry’. And finally, as impossible as it once seemed, we can now legally marry the person of our choice regardless of gender. As Pierre Trudeau (a nominal Catholic) famously said, the government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Amen to that and please shut the door on your way out.
So what is polygamy, and where is the problem? As I understand the basic concept, civic marriage implies that two consenting adults assume legal responsibility for each other, and all that entails – such as, tax issues, responsibility in case of infirmity, immigration, and so on. Ostensibly, all of this exists to mutually benefit the individual and the state. I’ll accept that logic for the sake of argumentâ€”although, in some other countries, taking legal co-responsibility for more than one consenting adult is perfectly acceptable, as long as you can perform the obligations required of the union. In Malaysia, for example, I was once hosted in the home of a very kind man and his four wives and numerous children, all of whom seemed happy with the arrangement. But putting that aside for a moment, lets just accept that in Canada, you are only legally entitled to one spouse. OK. So.
I would have guessed, that when a couple trots down to city hall to get a marriage licence, they have to show some valid I.D. â€” right? Like, when you get a library card, or register a car? And I would assume that the marriage licensing window at City Hall (which, in Vancouver, used to be sited between ‘dog licensing’ and ‘bicycle courier licensing’), has a huge leather-bound ledger, or maybe even a computer, that will quickly raise a red flag when one of the couple in question turns out to be legally wed to someone else â€” right? Seems simple enough to me. So legally, I don’t get how ‘polygamy’ – i.e., having more than one legal spouse – can even happen.
And even if an individual somehow manages to fudge the documents, or to slip one past a sleepy clerk at a marriage licensing counter and sneak out with an extra wife â€¦ how big a deal is that? People rip off the government and deceive spouses on much graver issues every day. Why is this even news?
I have one suspicion as to why Bountiful’s polygamous streak is such an enduring subject of fascination and obsessive repulsion: envy. Many of us are born into the idea that one can only ever have one ‘life partner’, and that once that person is chosen, the decision is irrevokable (like, divorce never happens, right?). Not that there is anything wrong with having one partner, potentially for life. But we must also question that confine. It seems somehow unjust that others feel free to reject the assumption of monogamy â€” and thus, the story feeds our endless curiosity, and the media’s unflagging attention.
Muttered Winston Blackmore, who is rumoured to have 24 wives, on his way out of court today: “They are picking on me because of my lifestyle choices. Again.”