Forced Marriage by Religious Leaders in Canada
~ Shirley Gillett, FMP Coordinator
We’ve all heard the stories out of Bountiful BC’s polygamous Mormon sect (FLDS) where young girls were trafficked between communities in the US and Canada, and forced into polygamous marriages to men often older than their fathers. And we may have heard of the brave escapes, like Debbie Palmer, setting fire to her house and fleeing her incarceration with her eight children. But many people have looked at the situation in Bountiful as an anomaly, as something tragic but rare.
Yet there is mounting evidence that religious leaders within many of the smaller, more exclusive religious sects are forcing marriages upon the women and girls, and sometimes men, within their congregations. In some cases, religious leaders are not allowing the female members, and some male members, to choose their own marriage partners. In other cases, religious leaders are solemnizing marriages that are clearly forced, either in the fact that these marriages were not consensual for at least one of the participants, or that the girl was below the age of consent. In some instances these marriages have been polygamous. While any of these scenarios make the marriage null and void in Canadian law, in many cases the women and girls are not aware of the marriage’s invalidity, and they are often also unaware of their own rights to freedom and autonomy.
 Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, which is not to be confused with the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) which renounced polygamy in the nineteenth century.
Elizabeth is one such young woman. She was raised in an exclusivist sect of a Protestant Christian denomination that was conceived in nineteenth-century Britain, one of many such sects that emerged in a century that saw churches rise, split apart and form multiple bodies with similar core beliefs but differing on, what each considered to be, a central tenet.
From the outside, Elizabeth’s church may not fit many people’s preconceptions of a church where religious leaders force congregants into marriage. Its beliefs valorize members leading staid, sober, law-abiding lives. Its membership is mostly quite wealthy with a majority in high status, high income generating occupations such as bank vice presidents and CEO’s of industry. Ethnically, they are almost exclusively of British or European background and pride themselves on belonging to a church that holds to the correct, in their opinion, interpretation of the Bible.
From the beginning, Elizabeth was denied the full and free consent integral to a legitimate marriage. The church elders, all male, admonished her that she must marry a man from within her exclusive sect. Marrying another Christian, another Protestant, even someone from another branch of her sect would not be tolerated. To do so would be to bring excommunication from the church and to be shunned by its members.
A church leader from the UK came to Canada looking for a bride. He was older and she was, in her own words, considered a trophy wife. She agreed to the marriage, believing that she had no choice but to marry within the sect. She was then taken to the United Kingdom.