The harm at Bountiful demands action
How refreshing it is to hear our attorney general, with all that his position implies, say that “a valid criminal law … should be enforced.”
It would be even more refreshing to hear Wally Oppal say that all valid laws, including those passed by the government of which he’s a member — for the Criminal Code is a federal statute — should be enforced.
Some of those — that odious election advertising gag, for example — he might not consider appropriate, but seems constrained from saying so by his position in cabinet. Still, until they’re found by the courts not to be, all laws are valid and should be enforced.
We all know that there are speed limits on our roads. We also know that the police usually let us whiz by at around nine km/h over those limits without giving chase.
The law against polygamy that Oppal now says should be enforced goes quite a bit deeper. It has been on the books in one form or another since 1890 when Mormons were setting up communities on the Prairies. But for nearly 60 years, B.C. governments have not disturbed the goings-on at Bountiful despite repeated alarms.
When Oppal took over his shop, he found it was full of lawyers who felt prosecution of polygamists might not stand up in court.
So he hired a special prosecutor who recommended that it would be best to refer that section of the criminal law to the B.C. Court of Appeal, from where it might find its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, to establish whether it was constitutional.
Oppal, probably recognizing that this didn’t show much determination to enforce the law, appointed a second special prosecutor, who agreed with the courtreference approach. He also pointed out that because the law had lain dormant, in effect, so long, it would be “unfair” to prosecute now.
The polygamists certainly were aware they were breaking the law, but they had been at it so long they might have thought nobody minded.
And now that Oppal has hired his third special prosecutor, and apparently ordered him to find ways to get on with it, people are saying that it’s only because a provincial election is in the offing. Public opinion polls have shown that almost threequarters of the electorate want the boom to be lowered on Bountiful.
The Charter of Rights seems to have something to say about all this. The residents of Bountiful are members of a breakaway fundamentalist sect of the Mormon church. They believe God has told men to “raise up seed” with at least three women and told women to speed their husbands to the celestial kingdom by serving them.
Freedom of religion is the first of our freedoms in the charter. Absent any other consideration, I find it inconceivable that freedom of religion could be subjected to any limits justifiable in a free and democratic society.
The courts gave homosexuals the right to marry with less constitutional compulsion. If gender no longer matters, how does number?
There are other considerations with polygamy. It’s been claimed that harm is done people — especially women and children — in these communities. Those who have fled them claim that despite the outward calm, there are real jealousies and pain that are kept hidden by oppressive rules forbidding any show of emotion.
Females are ordered to “keep sweet” and be obedient. Dancing, dressing in certain colours or showing bare arms can be forbidden.
What happens to boys in a community where old men demand young wives must be traumatic. What happens to the young wives, some reportedly in their early teens, must be worse.
There has to be a way of separating things like pedophilia and abuse from what are claimed to be benefits of polygamy. Fundamentalists argue that larger families allow increased support for all their members. Women serving the same man say they feel sisterhood for one another.
A universal ban against polygamy might be unconstitutional. But religious freedom can’t be claimed to justify criminal licence.
The authorities in Texas might have gone too far in seizing children whom they were unable to persuade the state supreme court were in “immediate” danger.
But they were right, and Oppal is right, to make, at last, an attempt to prosecute distasteful and criminal offences that they suspect are occurring. The law must be pursued, not allowed to languish any more. The danger that Bountiful’s children are in has been “immediate” too long.