U.K. Pays Price Of Polygamy


U.K. pays price of polygamy
Daphne Bramham
The Vancouver Sun
Friday, February 08, 2008

Polygamists in Britain are now receiving welfare benefits for their multiple wives as long as they were legally married outside the country.

It's a bizarre turn of events since the government undertook the review after concerns were raised polygamists were bilking the welfare system. It's a measure of just how nervous politicians were about the decision taken at the end of last year that they didn't make it public.

It was left to The Sunday Telegraph to break the news this month that not only will polygamists be able to collect welfare for all their wives, the payments will be made directly into the husbands' — not the wives' — bank accounts.

Further, the British government agreed the estimated 1,000 polygamists are now also eligible for additional housing and council tax benefits.

Most British polygamists are Muslims. Their holy book, the Koran, allows men to take up to four wives with the stipulation they can only do so if they're able to adequately provide for all of them.

Now, British taxpayers will be helping those men, paying millions of pounds each year to support their larger-than-average families.

As in Canada, polygamy is illegal in Britain. The punishment there is seven years in jail — it's five in Canada. The U.K.'s immigration law — like Canada's — doesn't allow men to bring multiple wives into the country.

“It sets a precedent that will lead to more demands for the culture of other countries to be reflected in U.K. law and the benefits system,” Conservative critic Chris Grayling told the Telegraph.

The same week the British government was defending its decision to pay polygamous men $66.37 a month for every additional spouse as “the best possible option,” the United Nations urged Saudi Arabia to end the practice of polygamy because it runs contrary to the principles of equality.

It seems while women in the developing world are pushing for an end to the discriminatory and demeaning practice, politicians in the developed world are lurching towards acceptance.

Is this where tolerant, multicultural Canada is headed?

Muslims aren't yet a powerful political force in Canada. But they soon could be. In 2001, there were 579,600 Muslims in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. That's slightly more than twice the number of Sikhs in Canada and nearly double the number of Jews.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the country, with the number of Muslims doubling from 1991 to 2001.

The Ontario government briefly flirted with allowing shariah law to be used in family disputes and it already allows polygamous wives legally married in foreign countries to claim part of their husband's estate when he dies or if they separate.

The federal government has been reviewing polygamy. Three of four reports commissioned by the National Status of Women in 2006 concluded Canada must enforce its criminal sanctions against the practice.

But the fourth, by Queen's University Prof. Martha Bailey, concluded Canada should recognize foreign, polygamous marriages and extend legal protections and benefits to the women and children.

Canada's largest group of unabashed polygamists — an estimated 1,200 fundamentalist Mormons — lives in Bountiful in southeastern British Columbia. They've been there since 1946 and don't hide the fact they're polygamists because no government has yet had the temerity to enforce the Criminal Code.

Bountiful's leader Winston Blackmore has frequently been quoted in the media saying he has several wives. Because of growing public pressure in the wake of Blackmore flaunting his polygamy in the media, then attorney-general Geoff Plant asked the RCMP in 2004 to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation, abuse, welfare fraud, and misuse of government grants for two independent schools.

It was more than two years before RCMP handed over its voluminous files (including DNA samples of almost everyone in Bountiful). And it was spring 2007 when criminal justice branch lawyers concluded no charges should be laid. They worried the Constitution's guarantees of religious freedom might trump the Criminal Code prohibition against polygamy.

Attorney-General Wally Oppal wasn't happy with that. As minister of multiculturalism, Oppal knows Muslims in B.C. and across Canada are closely watching what is happening — or not happening — with Bountiful.

On May 31, Oppal appointed special prosecutor Richard Peck, who concluded polygamy is at the root of any real or perceived evil in Bountiful. But rather than charge Blackmore or anyone else, Peck said it would be more expeditious to refer the polygamy law to the B.C. Court of Appeal and ask the justices to determine its constitutionality.

Oppal balked. On Sept. 7, he appointed a second special prosecutor, Leonard Doust.

“Obviously, I think it [polygamy] is demeaning to women; it runs contrary to all our values,” Oppal told The Sun's Kelly Sinoski. “The whole idea of women being treated as property is abhorrent. … I don't think any reasonable thinking Canadian favours polygamy.”

Polls indicate that is true. Yet nearly 15 months after the RCMP concluded its investigation and five months after Doust's appointment, nothing has happened.

Oppal must do something. If he doesn't, vote-seeking politicians may eventually bow to the religious lobby groups. And we could end up like Britain: not only being forced to tolerate polygamy, but paying for it with our tax dollars.