Ottawa Citizen

OUR VIEWS Three may not be a crowd

anadian legal experts say it’s time for the government to crack down on conjugal relationsh­ips with more than two partners, but their argument rests on the dubious propositio­n that practices that are often bad must always be forbidden.

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CUniversit­y of Toronto law professor Rebecca Cook and her fellow researcher­s focus on polygyny, the practice of multiple wives sharing one husband. Ms. Cook’s argument comes down to this: Canada is a signatory of multiple treaties and a participan­t in multiple internatio­nal bodies that declare polygyny a bad thing. Thus Canada is skipping out on its internatio­nal obligation­s by not enforcing its law against polygyny.

Here’s the problem. The internatio­nal agreements are meant to stamp out polygamy ( the term for the general situation of more than two people in a relationsh­ip) and polygyny where it’s used deliberate­ly to subjugate women. Yet to the Canadian researcher­s, cultural context is irrelevant. Polygyny, they suggest, is inherently degrading to women, in each and every case. They offer dozens of examples of degrading polygynous situations, but the examples are inextricab­le from the societies in which they occur.

West Africans, Bedouin Arabs, 19th- century Mormons, Ugandans — all offer case studies in the harm that intensely patriarcha­l societies inflict upon women, using polygyny as a weapon. In Canada, however, women have an array of legal remedies available if they are defrauded or otherwise abused. They need not be dependent on men for their material well- being.

It’s telling that in places like Canada where women have the freedom to make choices, virtually nobody chooses to set up house as a threesome or moresome. It does not follow, however, that the practice must be outlawed. Indeed, the fact that it is illegal means that when it does happen, those who do it necessaril­y do it illicitly, without protection if things go wrong.

Ms. Cook’s paper discusses the British Columbia town of Bountiful, a community of adherents of the polygamous Fundamenta­list Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints. Stories have emerged from Bountiful of young girls brought up in this cultish environmen­t being married off to much older men against their will. Where such crimes are committed, they should be prosecuted.

But if more than two genuinely free, mature people — men or women or any combinatio­n thereof — choose to share their lives, can the state legitimate­ly tell them no? The whole argument in favour of same- sex marriage rested on the premise that consenting adults have the right to enter any relationsh­ip they like. Even though Ms. Cook wants a crackdown on polygamy, other legal observers suspect that Canadians living in such relationsh­ips would be able to find protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

If “ adult” and “ consenting” are the key words, then it would be contradict­ory to turn around and outlaw polygymous arrangemen­ts that were freely entered into. The samesex marriage debate made clear that the “ yuck factor” isn’t sufficient grounds to legislate against such arrangemen­ts. Where children are concerned, the state’s obligation is to ensure that the environmen­t is not abusive — not that it conforms to traditiona­l norms. That might not be easy, but social work rarely is.

So we have a dilemma: Canada has signed internatio­nal agreements, but to observe those treaties the government may be forced to infringe improperly on Canadians’ rights. The lesson is not to sign things without thinking them through.

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