In 2011, the Supreme Court of British Columbia issued a landmark decision running to 335 pages: it opined that although anti-polygamy legislation does indeed impinge on religious freedom, it is necessary in view of the harm which multiple marriage causes to children, women and society. It was that ruling which paved the way for the current trial.
Blair Suffredine, Mr Blackmore’s lawyer, is defending his client on grounds that society recognises the legitimacy of other non-traditional unions, including common-law marriage. He has said: “Because of Blackmore’s religious belief, because he has more than one relationship, he’s being prosecuted. If he didn’t have a religious ceremony and just had all these children with different women, it would be fine. The sole distinction is [that] Blackmore went and had ceremonies for each one….”
The decision will be watched with interest in many democracies. There is no liberal democratic state where polygamy is legal, but the practice is recognised, either formally or de facto, in around 60 countries round the world, mostly Muslim. In practice, courts and authorities in democratic countries have often accorded some recognition to polygamous unions forged elsewhere when adjudicating, say, social-security benefits or child custody. That includes Canada, where immigration authorities insist, of course, that each newcomer must declare only one spouse but have been willing in principle to allow children from a father’s other marriages to enter the country.