This is the Life: On legislating morality

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Last week I had a call from a reader asking why the Advance hasn’t been running stories about the polygamy case that was running in Vancouver for the last several months. The implication was that I wanted to avoid the issue. After all, I’ve written in this very space over the years that I don’t believe that a criminal justice approach to the issue is a good solution.

More about that in a moment, though. First, my explanation to the reader was a simple one. “Do you think I can go to Vancouver and sit in a courtroom for three months?” I asked. We don’t subscribe to a wire service and we are not owned by a company that owns major daily papers. Our sister papers are community papers like us and they had no reporters in the courtroom, either. There is a common misconception that we can simply lift stories from other newspapers and media at will. We can’t and we don’t.

That particular discussion came hot on the heels of the story that revealed that an investigation by law enforcement officials in Texas had found evidence that three very young girls, as young as 12, had been taken to the U.S. from the Creston Valley several years ago to be married. The news was all the more disturbing because it said two of the girls were driven across the border by their fathers, who had arranged marriages for them.

Of course, those who are in favour eliminating polygamy by prosecuting the practice as a crime used that story to reinforce their own beliefs. Personally, I think it muddied the issue even further. There are a number of criminal code laws that were broken if the Texas information is true. We have laws in Canada that protect young women and men from being forced into unwanted sexual relationships, a point that Vancouver Sun Daphne Bramham made even as she was citing the case as further evidence that polygamy is a crime and should be treated as such.

So why don’t I believe that treating polygamy as a crime is a good idea? Because is not enforceable. Unless we are going to start sending police into the bedrooms of citizens and arresting anyone who cohabits with more than one partner there is simply no way to enforce the law, unless it is done selectively, targeting a certain group of people. We have ample experience that using the law to change the way people live is a bad idea. Children of Doukhobors were taken from their homes more than half a century ago. First Nations kids were forced to attend residential schools in what became known as the Sixties Sweep. In a conversation with a Lower Kootenay Band member this week I asked her opinion about the polygamy issue. She made the connection to her own peoples’ experience and said breaking up families and forcing others to live in a certain way causes more damage than good.

For years I have asked people who want criminal prosecutions for polygamists what they want to happen. The most common answer is that men who take more than one wife should be jailed. It’s a solution I happen to disagree with. Instead, why not work to put more teeth into the laws that protect children from inappropriate sexual relationships or that ban human trafficking, which is what transporting a girl across the U.S. border to be married is? Like the vast majority of citizens, I’m all for prosecuting people who abuse or mistreat children. Putting our efforts into protecting kids is a worthy endeavour. Making criminals out of adults who have sex with more than one partner isn’t, from my perspective.

If the Vancouver test case determines that polygamy laws should stand, I fear that precious criminal justice resources will be directed at the activities of consenting adults when what we really should be focusing on is the protection of young people, who deserve to have a childhood before entering into adult relationships. The practice of polygamy has been a criminal act for a long time in Canada but it hasn’t been enforced for any number of reasons. In a just society, people decide whether a law is acceptable. If they don’t like a law, they simply adjust their behaviour. We need look no further than the failure of prohibition nearly a century ago or the current hopeless war on drugs for evidence.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.