Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bountiful’s child brides a thorny problem

You can't blame Attorney General Wally Oppal for struggling with what to do about the polygamous community at Bountiful.
About 1,000 people live in the community near Creston. They're members of a sect that split from the Mormon Church in 1930, about 40 years after it renounced polygamy. They've had a Kootenay outpost since 1946.
Their religious views clash with the values of most Canadians. Men must have multiple wives - at least three, but often many more - to be assured of the highest form of salvation.
The leader/prophet is considered God's anointed, with powers to match. (But then, so is the Pope.)
He is considered divinely ordained to order girls to marry husbands - or take them away and remarry them to someone else. There are strict dress codes and a lot of religious rules.
Polygamy is theoretically against the law in Canada; the sect acknowledges men in Bountiful have more than one wife. Prosecution should be straightforward.
But the Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom. The courts could decide that protects polygamy.
The law does appear to trample on individual rights. It's a crime in Canada to be in "any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time."
It doesn't have to be marriage. There doesn't have to be any sexual relationship. It's still a crime for three or four people to be in a "conjugal union."
It's hard to see what right the state has to poke into the way people choose to live. Add the issue of religious freedom, and the law looks dubious.
That's been the concern of the province, which has balked at laying polygamy charges.
Oppal has just hired a third outside lawyer to review the possibility of laying charges. The first two suggested asking the courts for an advance ruling on the charter issues.
Oppal appears to want a special prosecutor ready to take a chance on a polygamy charges.
While polygamy in the abstract raises issues of religious freedom, the reality is grimmer. Winston Blackmore, the prophet of the Bountiful sect, hands out the brides. He has at least 26, and more than 100 children.
What about the rights of the girls, as young as 15, handed off as brides - sixth or seventh or twentieth wives - to middle-aged men? Do they really consent? What if their husband falls from favour, and they are handed to a new man, like a piece of property?
What happens to the 40 or 50 children sired by a single male?
And, as older men are assigned all the young women, what happens to the "lost boys," the young men who grew up in Bountiful, but have no future?
There is good reason for concern. The sect acknowledges 15-year-old girls have been married off to men three times their age, on Blackmore's orders. (That would be illegal now that age of consent has been raised.)
Are they simply young women who have made an informed choice to embrace the religious beliefs they have been taught since birth? Or brainwashed or coerced victims, forced into having sex with old men against their wills?
Sorting that out is not easy. Bountiful is a closed world. It has its own school - provincially funded - and is cut off, unless Blackmore decides to allow members to speak. There are few witnesses to share their stories.
Research suggests polygamous communities are bad places for children - but so are a lot of other environments.
So what should happen? Ideally, police and prosecutors would establish other reasons to intervene. The Education Ministry could ensure the school has been adhering to the provincial curriculum. The Children and Families Ministry could be alert.
But ultimately, the polygamy law will likely have to be tested. Prosecutors should pick the best case and be prepared to demonstrate that the damage done justifies the legal ban.
And then the courts can balance the competing rights.
Footnote: Texas authorities removed children from a similar compound in April, citing fears of child abuse. But at the end of May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the child protection authorities had gone too far and ordered them returned. The case indicates the challenges of dealing with closed religious communities.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Liberals betray democracy by forcing through bills without debate

Left, right, green or in-between, you should be appalled at the way the spring legislative session ended last week.
In the space of 67 minutes, the government forced six bills through the legislature.
No debate. No chance for any MLA - government or opposition - to ask how the new laws would affect the people they represented.
Just a rubber-stamp vote on laws imposed from above that will change the way British Columbians live, without debate or questions.
These weren't housekeeping bills. In the space of minutes, the government forced through a bill authorizing a carbon tax which will, by 2012, bring in more than $1 billion a year in taxes on fuels. (The money will be redistributed through other tax breaks.)
I think that's a good idea. But a lot of people - from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Williams Lake Mayor Scott Nelson - disagree. Critics say the tax will be costly and unfair, hurting northern communities.
MLAs should debate a fundamental economic change like the tax. They should be able to ask questions about the effects on their communities. That didn't happen.
It took 11 minutes to ram through a bill that limits the ability of individuals or organizations to raise public policy issues in the three months before an election. Only political parties are free to communicate their views. The bill was rushed through despite Attorney General Wally Oppal's earlier promise of a full debate.
And on it went, in a process that wouldn't be out of place in Castro's Cuba.
You can argue about whose fault this was.
But everyone should agree it was a travesty. Laws were imposed on ordinary people with no debate or scrutiny. A handful of people - an inner circle of politicians and bureaucrats - dictated how we will live.
The Liberals blame the New Democrats for taking too long to debate the budget and other bills.
But the government introduce its last 10 bills with less than 16 sitting days left in the session and piles of earlier legislation still not debated.
The NDP says the government could have extended the session to allow debate on the laws. Or it could have delayed some legislation to the scheduled fall session, where the bills could have been fully debated.
Instead, it used closure to force the bills into law, with no debate, in the final moments before MLAs returned to their constituencies.
The fixed legislative session introduced by the Liberals included plans for a fall session - six weeks are scheduled this year.
But Premier Gordon Campbell has tried to avoid fall sittings. (In fact, the Liberals have not been keen on having the legislature sit at all.)
That's understandable. When the legislature is sitting, the government face daily questions from the opposition. The issues are troublesome and the media is paying attention.
When the legislature isn't sitting, the government has much greater control of the agenda, deciding when and how to make announcements.
As a journalist, it is a little embarrassing to acknowledge that the media is so dependent on the 30 minutes of question period to generate stories. But, there it is.
Despite all the finger-pointing, the government - that means Campbell - has to take responsibility for this assault on democracy.
Even if it believes the NDP took too much time debating the budget or other measures, it was the government that decided to push these bills through the legislature without debate.
It had options. The election gag law, for example, could have been introduced last year. Other legislation could have waited until the fall.
Instead, the Liberals - unlike any government in B.C.'s history - have made closure a routine way of doing business.
The principle that laws must be debated by the peoples' representatives before they are voted on is central to our democratic system.
The Campbell government's failure to accept that basic tenet of democracy betrays a dangerous arrogance.
Footnote: The expectation is that the Liberals won't call a fall session of the legislature, meaning that MLAs won't sit again until next spring. The legislature will have been in session for 47 days this year, one of the briefest in a non-election year in two decades.