It’s likely you heard the term ‘polyamory’ at some point during 2016. In the Fall 2016 issue, Rich Mitchinson discussed his own experiences in an article titled, ‘The Rise of Polyamory.’ CBC’s The Current interviewed a polyamorous family after the results of the first national public survey on Canadians’ perceptions of polyamory were released by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. CTV Vancouver reported that Winston Blackmore, the leader of a fundamentalist religious sect in Bountiful, British Columbia with a checkered history of courtroom battles over Canada’s polygamy laws, lost an appeal in June to have another charge of polygamy levelled against him dismissed.
But what is polyamory? Simply put, it’s the practice of engaging in consensual, meaningful romantic relationships with multiple partners, all of whom are aware and accepting of the arrangement. It’s often confused in mainstream discourse with polygamy, or the practice of marrying multiple spouses. Polygamy was popularized with the advent of television shows such as HBO’s ‘Big Love,’ and ‘Sister Wives,’ which continues to run on TLC, and is often associated with religions such as Islam and Mormonism. It’s also illegal in North America.
The laws surrounding polygamy in Canada and the United States don’t present a problem for polyamorous couples, mainly because, as the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association points out, marriage isn’t the common thread that unites all polyamorous relationships. Furthermore, organizations such as CPAA often take issue with being mistaken for polygamy because of the values that are associated with polygamy, such as indoctrination, child marriage and pastoral authority, just to name a few. Additionally, many polyamorous couples simply don’t want to get married. As it stands, due to a decision made by the British Columbia Supreme Court in 2011, polyamory is technically legal in Canada, simply because it doesn’t involve marriage.
This doesn’t mean that polyamorous couples don’t face threats to their lifestyle in the Canadian legal system, though. In an interview with CBC, John-Paul Boyd, the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, said he pursued research in the status of multi-partner relationships in Canada because of the legal questions that families within the community had brought to him. He points out that most laws that deal with the everyday issues Canadian families face are written to accommodate single-partner families, while multi-partner families are often left vulnerable, and are forced to resort to emergency authorizations and powers of attorney. Social service benefits such as the Canadian Pension Plan are also not set up to accommodate families with multiple spouses. And in the event of a break-up, there’s a fear surrounding the legal custody rights of partners concerning any children living in the family.
The number of legal obstacles faced by families who are not technically illegal in Canada seems enormous. So, what are the options for polyamorous families who don’t want to risk legal repercussions by marrying each other, but also want to remain legally protected? Boyd told CBC that he imagined that reworking current marriage laws, and family law in Canada would be an option to explore in the coming years as more poly families begin to emerge from the woodwork. But are there even enough existing polyamorous families in Canada to justify reconsidering legislation?
According to the public survey administered by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, which collected preliminary data on their study of Canadian perceptions of polyamory, there is. Information from about 550 individuals found that the typical Canadian polyamorist is part of a three-person relationship (it’s likely that two out of the three are legally married), and lives as part of two households in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario. The survey found that only around 30% of respondents had taken legal steps to formalize various aspects of their relationships, with the most common being emergency authorizations, relationship agreements and powers of attorney for medical circumstances. The survey also found that the prohibitions against polygamy in the Criminal Code didn’t deter respondents from pursuing polyamorous relationships or being public about their relationships.
While the legal status of polyamory and the sanctions against polygamy may not be a concern for most polyamorists (or at least those who participated in the survey), the social perception of polyamorous relationships is another issue. Even though the majority of respondents believed that polyamory was becoming increasingly socially acceptable, most agreed that legislation prohibiting polygamy has cast a negative view of polyamory among the public, and that the majority of people view their relationships as a form of kink or fetish. Most telling, very few respondents agreed that the general public see their families as, well, families.
Judging by the survey’s findings, and the microscopic sample size, it’s easy to see why polyamory isn’t yet considered a mainstream lifestyle. The media also plays a role in public perceptions of polyamory, polygamy and other forms of multi-partner relationships. Coverage of stories tends to be sensationalistic rather than informative, and also fails to normalize the reality of families who, in their everyday lives, often face the same issues as monogamous relationships. Living in a sea of legal uncertainties among a society that doesn’t yet understand the reality of what it means to be polyamorous shows there’s little comfort to be had in being technically legal.But if you’re polyamorous and are looking for a place to start to move things along legally as well as socially, here are several ways to make progress:
Read the rest of the summer 2017 issue and order it in print here.