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Canada's polygamy case potentially puts polyamorous families in jail - part 2

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Polyamorists, who practice a form of open relationship that promotes full disclosure, gender equality, and multiple intimate partnerships, have long tried to distance themselves from their kissing cousins, patriarchal polygamists like the FLDS Church. But a month from now, a trial will begin in Canada that puts them on the same side of a constitutional legal challenge that will determine the criminality of both of their chosen lifestyles

(Part 2 of a 2-part series; part 1 is here)

“Poly is the new gay”

When this reference question began, says John Ince, the attorney for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, it didn’t look like the law would really be a problem for the polyamorous community. At first, “the government filed a document saying we interpret the old law to only cover patriarchal polygyny,” Ince says. But the attorneys general of BC and of the federal government have begun to suggest that any relationship involving a single man and more than one woman would be prohibited. Ince and others are appalled and baffled by this idea, especially since it would leave women in multi-male relationships untouched. “It's truly bizarre, it has no evidence to support it…and when we tried to elicit more evidence from the government, they refused to provide it and said you'll just have to wait ‘til trial," Ince said.

Meanwhile, members of the CPAA have been compiling evidence in the form of affidavits, which tell the stories of five polyamorous families across Canada from Vancouver to Montreal (scroll down for links to affidavits). Each document unfolds the story of a different polyamorous person and his or her partners, children, and family life, and attempts to present a picture of health, normalcy and loving homes to the court. In this way, Ince hopes to bring the lives of poly people in Canada to public light, and perhaps achieve some normalization. Some are saying that poly is “the new gay,” in the sense that 40 years ago, the laws that made homosexuality a crime in Canada were overturned, and homosexuality has become far more accepted in the larger culture. The hope is that if Section 293 is thrown out, then polyamory will be on the path to greater normalization as well.

As it is, though, polyamory is still a fairly fringe notion. While the CPAA represents a few hundred polyamorists, Zoe Duff is one of only 5 brave people who chose to come forward and speak publicly in this case, using their real names and those of their family members. It hasn’t been the easiest road. “We have all experienced some negative attitudes and lost friends,” she says, though adds that “so far, I'm the only one who has been impacted in the workplace by some subtle and lately more overt discrimination.” Mostly, though, she’s been surprised and pleased by the amount of support she’s received from friends, family, and even “firmly monogamous” strangers who are supportive of the CPAA’s fight.

“Has the world gone mad?”

The press hasn’t been quite as kind, however. Daphne Bramham, author of the anti-FLDS book Lives of the Saints, seems rather bewildered by the whole affair in her Vancouver Sun column; presumably she’s a bit upset that polyamorists are threatening to undo the work she has done so steadfastly to dismantle abusive groups like that in Bountiful. Mindelle Jacobs, at the Ottawa Sun, meanwhile, is dismissive of those who are “so fired up about freedom that [they forget] that women (and boys) in Bountiful have none,” puts sarcastic quotation marks around the word “committed” when referring to the CPAA affidavits, and in response to the credo “Polyamory is the new gay,” snarks, “Who knew?” Many can’t wrap their heads around the idea that more than two adults in a marriage-like relationship could result in anything but mayhem; Jacobs even explodes, “Has the world gone mad?” With polyamory being a new concept to a lot of the mainstream, going public in a case that’s about the widely demonized practice of polygamy is a tough road.

Polyamorists have hitherto largely flown under the radar for this reason; the last time a group of poly people organized around an issue was in the 1998 April Divilbiss case, where a child’s grandparents had the state take the child away after Divilbiss appeared on an MTV show with her two partners. It can be difficult to get poly people to come out and agitate politically unless there is such a major breach of rights. Says Ince, “There's a lot in the literature about poly people being anarchistic - they don't want to poke their heads out and get involved with the mechanisms of the state.” But just as some in the gay community finally began to agitate for mainstream rights and recognition, "other people say no, we don't want to live underground. We want to be able to come out to our families and our friends and our employers and our government."

Though striking down the law will not actually legalize polygamous marriage, the hope is that this case, like those around gay marriage, will help poly people who want to be more integrated into larger society to do so without fear of criminal reprisal.

Zoe Duff, though she hopes for a win, is happy with what she has already accomplished. “I am proud of my partners and love them dearly. My life and the lives of my children are enhanced by the loving multiple partnered relationship that we have built,” she says. “Regardless of the results of this case, I think that being true to my heart and standing up for my beliefs is an excellent example of making a difference in the world for my children, and a fine result.”

The case begins on November 22.

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