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Equality, Democracy, Monogamy: Discourses of Canadian Nation Building in the 2010–2011 British Columbia Polygamy Reference

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2013

Joanna Sweet*
M.A. Internship Coordinator University of Windsor Windsor, Ontario N9B


This article examines how the 2010-2011 Reference re s 293, which considered the constitutionality of the polygamy prohibition, contributed to nation building discourses in Canada. A critical discourse analysis demonstrates that traditional views of monogamous marriage remain an important tenet of nation building in Canada. Discourses in the reference portrayed monogamous marriage as a central national institution and as a means of safeguarding women’s equality rights. These discourses, in turn, had racialized consequences for defining Canadian national identity.


Cet article examine comment la décision de la Cour suprême, citée dans le 2010-2011 Reference re : s 293, qui déclarait constitutionnelles les dispositions du Code criminel interdisant la polygamie, a contribué aux discours canadiens relatifs à l’édification de la nation. Une analyse critique du discours démontre comment les points de vue traditionnels du mariage monogame demeurent un volet important de l’édification de la nation au Canada. Les discours dans le document de référence a présenté le mariage monogame comme une institution nationale centrale qui garantie les droits des femmes à l’égalité. Ces discours, à leur tour, ont eu des conséquences raciales envers l’élaboration de l’identité canadienne nationale.

Copyright © Canadian Law and Society Association / Association Canadienne Droit et Société 2013 

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1 “Polygamy” can be subdivided into “polygyny,” the practice where one man takes several wives, and “polyandry,” where one woman takes multiple husbands. Historically and cross-culturally, polygamy manifests itself almost exclusively as polygyny. This article uses the term “polygamy” to refer to both polygyny and polyandry.

2 Fundamentalist Mormonism is not to be confused with the mainstream Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), which rejects polygamy. Fundamentalist Mormons continue to believe that plural marriage is essential to enter into the highest level of glory in the afterlife. The FLDS is one sect of Fundamentalist Mormonism. In Canada, Winston Blackmore was the Bishop of Bountiful until he was excommunicated by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and replaced by James Oler. Upon his excommunication, the Bountiful community split, with some members remaining loyal to Blackmore and others following Oler. The Blackmore faction at Bountiful is Fundamentalist but not presently FLDS.

3 “Third Prosecutor Named to Investigate Polygamy in Bountiful, BC,” CBC News, Monday, June 2, 2008,

4 The CPAA and FLDS additionally argued that the provision violated s 2(b) of the Charter.

5 Seven groups with interested person status joined the AGBC and AGC in defending the provision: Beyond Borders, the British Columbia’s Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children & the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCRC/DACCR), the Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF), REAL Women of Canada, Stop Polygamy in Canada (SPC), and the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF) (“the defenders”).

6 The Amicus Curiae was joined by four groups with interested person status: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and James Oler, the Canadian Association for Free Expression (CAFE), the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA), and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) (“the challengers”). Winston Blackmore’s faction did not participate in the reference.

7 Gordon, Sarah Barringer, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 2425.

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9 House of Commons Debates (April 10, 1890) at 5180.

10 Debates of the Senate (February 20, 1890) at 112.

11 R v Labrie (1891), 7 MLRQB 211 (Que CA).

12 Dionne v Pepin (1934), 72 CS 393 (Que SC).

13 R v Tolhurst and Wright (1937), 38 CCC 319 (Ont CA).

14 The King v John Harris (1906), 11 CCC 254 (Que).

15 The Queen v Bear’s Shin Bone (1899), 4 Terr LR 173 (NWTSC).

16 House of Commons Debates (May 4, 1885) at 1589.

17 Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 21.

18 Foster, Lawrence, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 135.

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21 Ibid., 370–72.

22 Denike, Margaret, “The Racialization of White Man’s Polygamy,” Hypatia 25(4) (2010): 852 at 863–64.

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24 Reynolds v United States, 98 US 145 (1878), 164.

25 Ertman, 318–19.

26 Ibid.

27 Denike, 856.

28 Lieber, Francis, “The Mormons: Shall Utah be admitted into the union?Putman’s Monthly 5 (27) (1855), 10fn, quoted in Denike, 862.

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33 Draft Transcripts (November 22, 2010), 50 line 25, and 51 line 1. Emphasis Mine.

34 Draft Transcripts (January 25, 2011), 33.

35 See, for instance, the testimony of Carolyn Jessop, Draft Transcript (January 12, 2011), 26–27.

36 Testimony of Jorjina Broadbent, Draft Transcript (January 7, 2011), 48 line 39 to 49 line 2.

37 Affidavit No. 3 of Leah Greathead (February 23, 2011), 2.

38 Testimony of Carolyn Jessop, Draft Transcript (January 12, 2011), 48.

39 Affidavit No. 1 of Marianne T. Watson (October 15, 2010), 5–6.

40 Affidavit No. 1 of Witness No. 1 (October 15, 2010) at para 7.

41 Draft Transcript (December 01, 2010), 56–60.

42 Affidavit No. 1 of Witness No. 13 (October 15, 2010) at para 15.

43 R v Malmo-Levine, 2003 SCC 74, [2003] 3 SCR 571 (“Malmo-Levine”).

44 Malmo-Levine at para 126.

45 R v CJF (1996), 149 NSR (2d) 91, 105 CCC (3d) 435 (NS CA).

46 Ibid. at para 25.

47 Malmo-Levine at para 117.

48 Reference re Criminal Code, s 293, 2010 BCSC 1308.

49 Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, FAQ,

50 Closing Submissions of the Attorney General of Canada at para 204.

51 Closing Submission of the Amicus Curiae at paras 108–110.

52 Closing Submissions of REAL Women of Canada at para 1.2.

53 Closing Submissions of the Attorney General of British Columbia at para 122.

54 This desire was expressed in the Affidavit of Karen Ann Detillieux (May 27, 2010) at para 38.

55 The term “socially imposed monogamy” (or “socially imposed universal monogamy”) refers to the normative prohibition on polygamy. It is contrasted with “ecologically imposed monogamy,” which refers to situations in which polygamy would be admissible but is restrained by lack of ecological resources (Affidavit of Walter Scheidel, Report on Monogamy and Polygamy (July 7, 2010), 2).

56 Affidavit of Joseph Henrich, Polygyny in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Theory and Implications (July 15, 2010), 41.

57 Ibid.

58 Affidavit of Walter Scheidel, 16. He states, “I conclude that the question of whether SIUM has been instrumental in modernization and societal success, and more specifically in the creation of the modern democratic and economically highly developed state, cannot be meaningfully answered on the basis of the evidence that has been marshalled and analyzed to date.”

59 Closing Submissions of the Attorney General of British Columbia at paras 235–237.

60 Draft Transcripts (November 23, 2010), 65 lines 3–6. Emphasis mine.

61 Draft Transcripts (November 24, 2010), 43 lines 9–11.

62 Draft Transcripts (November 24, 2010), 43 lines 28–30.

63 Opening Statement of the Attorney General of Canada at para 26.

64 Closing Submission of the Amicus Curiae at para 72.

65 Closing Submissions of the Attorney General of British Columbia at para 36.

66 Closing Submissions of the Attorney General of Canada at para 197. 1