Lustful Prophets, Colluding Fathers: The Trafficking of Young Brides between Canada and the US for the Purposes of Multiple Covenant Marriage
Serena Petrella, Associate Professor Chair, Sociology Program Coordinator, Gender and Women’s Studies, Brandon University, Canada
This presentation focuses on marriage trafficking, a form of religious “bride smuggling” in which families trade their daughters into “celestial marriage” in exchange for power and prestige in their Mormon enclaves. “Celestial marriage” is a form of polygyny, in which a young girl is married off to a high-status man, who is already married to one or more wives. Mormon belief stipulates that multiple marriage is salvific and required to ascend to heaven.
In 2011, a British Columbia Supreme Court adjudication examined the practice of Mormon polygamy. The practice had been quietly resurging, over the last 60 years, in a small community of about 2,000 people in British Columbia. The courts needed to ascertain whether Mormon polygamy was inherently harmful and whether it might by protected by the “freedom of religion” clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Judge Bauman, presiding on the case, concluded that Fundamentalist Mormon polygamy was always harmful, and upheld its criminalization in the Criminal Code, while re-centring monogamy as the unshakeable pillar of sexual citizenship.
Shortly after, the state unleashed its disciplining zeal on the small Mormon community, as the adjudication had found evidence that up to 31 young girls, as young as 12, had been smuggled back and forth from the USA, over the past decade, to be married off in multiple celestial marriages to much older men. Two among these underage brides from Bountiful were married to the infamous Mormon leader Warren Jeffs, currently serving life in prison in Texas, for sexual assault and exploitation of minors. Adjudicators and jurors moved forth on multiple fronts: first, they stripped the community of its tax-saving “special religious status”; next, they prosecuted and charged two of its leaders, Mr. Winston Blackmore and Mr. James Oler, with polygamy in 2017. Mr. Blackmore came under scrutiny for the lax fiscal management of his flock and charged with tax evasion. Earlier this year, Mr. Oler, and two other community members, were prosecuted and charged for human trafficking, for willingly smuggling their own daughters to the US, knowing they would be married off into multiple “celestial” unions and sexually exploited by their much older husbands.
In this presentation, I will examine a body of literature that includes the texts of the adjudications for the court cases brought against these Mormon Families, as well as the support materials and testimonies collected in preparation for these trials, to examine the manner in which the Canadian State sponsors a very specific and narrow form of “erotic propriety” for sexual citizenship in the Law. I grapple seriously with the question: whose versions of love and marriage gain ascendancy, become licit, and are legally entrenched through recognized and state sanctioned unions, in religiously pluralistic societies such as Canada?
In my analysis of this literature, I will grapple with the following questions: given that these crimes took place in 2004, why prosecute at this juncture? Were these court cases attempting to protect underage members of the community from sexual exploitation? Was the state truly attempting to create more gender equal conditions, to ensure that young girls could grow up and live fulfilling and equal lives? Was something else at the heart of the draconian “crackdown” on Mormon polygyny? My analysis aims to ascertain whether the trope of “bride smuggling” between Canada and the United States of America was adopted by the Canadian state to normatively impose a very specific kind of erotic civility, while at the same time safeguarding both the purse strings of the state and the borders of the nation.