The Law | We offer safe haven to foreign women, but no protection for Canadians, even though the practice is illegal
Canada grants refugee status to foreign women who have good reason to believe they may be forced into polygamous marriages.
Yet, while Canada offers safe haven to foreign women fleeing polygamy, it offers no such protection for Canadians born into polygamous communities. Even though polygamy is illegal, more than 1,200 polygamists live in Canada. In part, they have flourished because the anti-polygamy law hasn’t been used in nearly 100 years.
Which is not to say that Canada shouldn’t provide a safe haven for foreign women. Rather, Canada needs to recognize the duplicity of offering unequal protection to citizens and non-citizens and correct it. It needs to bridge the glaring gap between what it does internationally and what it does at home.
Twice in the past four years, the Federal Court has ordered the Immigration and Refugee Board to reconsider its denial of safe haven for African women fleeing forced polygamous marriages.
The court does not have the power to grant refugee status; it can only review decisions, intervening when the board’s ruling are “perverse.”
On Aug. 28, the court ordered a new hearing for a Nigerian woman whose refugee application was denied. A Christian, she said that if she returned home, she would be forced to accept an arranged marriage as a second wife to a much older man.
She said the marriage contract included an obligation to submit to genital mutilation and to give up her child from a previous common-law relationship with a so-called outcast.
The board rejected her application because of the “implausibility that [the woman’s] Christian family would force her into a polygamous marriage.”
The woman told board members that it is common for Christian families in Nigeria to practise polygamy — her father has two wives. Yet the board said flatly that was impossible since Christians do not recognize polygamy, ignoring documentary evidence before it that forced marriages were often imposed on unmarried women with children.
In the case of a Zimbabwean woman heard in 2002, the refugee board said it is “universally known that any Christian sect . . . does not permit marriage to more than one person.”
The board said it is not plausible that a Christian man would arrange a forced marriage for his only daughter with a considerably older man with multiple wives or that a practising Christian would engage in polygamy.
Judge Richard Mosley overturned the board’s decision, saying that its members had imposed “a western view of Christian practises.”
If so, it was still an ignorant view of western Christianity.
The largest group of polygamists in the United States and Canada are not Muslims. They are fundamentalist Mormons who claim to be Christian.
Fundamentalist Mormons believe Christ is their saviour and that they are his chosen people. There are an estimated 30,000 of them across North America and more than 1,200 living near Creston, B.C., and in southern Alberta near Sundre.
Theologians might disagree that they are Christians, just as the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Mormons — contend that the breakaway group is not Mormon.
That aside, the majority of North American polygamists follow Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s revelation that only men with three or more wives can reach the highest realm of heaven.
They believe in assignment marriages where the prophet or church elders determine which women will marry which man. They teach women that they must be obedient to God, the prophet, the priesthood and their husbands, in that order.
Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the largest group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is being held in Purgatory Correctional Centre in St. George, Utah, awaiting trial on charges related to marriages he arranged between under-age girls and old men in both Utah and Arizona.
Winston Blackmore leads a group of about 700 in Bountiful, B.C., that has split from the FLDS. He openly admits to practising polygamy and that he has had several child “brides.” He has never been charged.
Consistent with the government’s misunderstanding of polygamy, Immigration Canada uniformly rejected Muslim and Chinese polygamists’ applications to immigrate with their multiples spouses. Those decisions have been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada on the basis that they would likely continue to practise polygamy once in Canada.
Yet in 2002, three of Blackmore’s plural wives were granted landed immigrant status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds because of their children.
That may have changed. Last spring, Immigration Canada ordered three more of Blackmore’s wives deported, denying their appeal for a humanitarian and compassionate exemption because of their children.
The women said they would file appeals to the Federal Court. None has yet been filed and the women remain in Canada.
There’s another point that Judge Mosley made in the Zimbabwean case. He said the board failed to “refer to its own gender guidelines.”
Canada was a pioneer in recognizing gender-based persecution and violence in its treatment of female refugees, writing the first immigration gender guidelines in 1993.
It was one of the first signatories to the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1980. More recently, Canada was a leading advocate in getting rape added to the list of war crimes.
Using those criteria, Canada has failed its own citizens — women who have the misfortune to be born into a polygamous community.
How much easier it is to look from afar and see what’s wrong in other countries than it is to recognize the same evil at home.
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