Marriages NOT Made in Heaven: Issue – #6 13/6/13

Forced Marriage by Religious Leaders in Canada

~ Shirley Gillett, FMP Coordinator


Bountiful BC, Debbie Palmer & FLDS religious leader
Debbie Palmer of Bountiful BC was forcibly married at 15 years of age by FLDS religious leaders

We’ve all heard the stories out of Bountiful BC’s polygamous Mormon sect (FLDS)[1] 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.

[1] 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’s Story

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.[1] The church elders, all male,[2] 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.

When she arrived, the story was changed, with a rapidly narrowing plot. She was told that she would never be able to go home to Canada again. She must commit to spend the rest of her life in this small, English town and dedicate herself to her husband and his church. She would be living in a large mansion as her husband-to-be was very wealthy, but despite this wealth, she would be required to maintain the entire residence herself. It was church practice that the wife must do all domestic chores personally. This would be her life. From the outside, she would be seen as privileged, cradled in luxury and prestige. From the inside, she would be a domestic and sexual slave with no opportunity for self-determination.

Elizabeth became ill and disoriented. She was incapable of carrying out her regular activities or managing on her own.  Her fiancé took advantage of her diminished ability to function or even to resist. He took her to hotels where he raped her repeatedly. She finally became so ill that she was sent back to Canada where it was determined that her illness was caused by a severe reaction to birth control pills she was taking in preparation for her marriage, aggravated by extreme stress.

 At this point, she was abandoned by her fiancé. When she was well enough, she took her case to the church elders. Despite the hotel receipts, her illness, and her abandonment, they were friends and colleagues with her former husband-to-be, and refused to take any action to assist her or to discipline him. Instead, they excommunicated[3] her for “the sin of unforgiveness” while her fiancé was rewarded with another wife.

Whether she will ever get justice for herself, Elizabeth has another goal. The United Kingdom has recently criminalized forced marriage. Since the mother church in the UK determines doctrine and practice for all churches within the sect, she believes that a door has opened through which she might push for change. Church leaders and members alike pride themselves on being law-abiding citizens. When an individual is forced to choose a partner from an extremely limited pool or face excommunication, church leaders are, in fact, and now in UK law, forcing marriages.

There are many small, exclusive sects throughout Canada. Some have only a few hundred members. But multiplied, sect upon sect, this could mean that there may be scores, even possibly hundreds, of marriages being forced among them, across the country.

Sometimes it takes only one individual coming forward to start the engines of change roaring to life. But to come forward, this individual must understand that what was done to them was unethical and was a breach of their human rights. They must recognize that someone cannot give their full and free consent to any marriage when the right to choose their marriage partner is taken from them. They need to further comprehend that this constitutes a forced marriage, which is not a legitimate marriage in Canadian law, and that it also constitutes a human rights violation under international law.[4]  This is the message that needs spreading.

Forced marriage takes many forms. It is not only perpetrated by parents and families but by others as well. And this can include religious leaders and institutions. Despite the fact that all the major religions condemn forced marriage, there exists within each of them more rigid, conservative, exclusionary sects whose practices are seldom examined by the larger population. What went on in Bountiful BC continued because people who were aware of it turned a blind eye to it while others didn’t bother to ask the difficult questions or to investigate more closely.

It is time for all of us to be proactive, to spread the word, to start conversations and, most of all, to support survivors who have the courage to speak truth to power even if it means the loss of their tight-knit community. They will need a new community and that is something that we can all create together.


[1] Forced marriage is the “union of two persons at least one of whom has not given their full and free consent to the marriage.” – UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and  Registration of Marriage, Article 1(1), 1964

[2] Only men can serve as elders in this church.

[3] Excommunication is similar to being cut off from your family. People with whom you have been in close and intense interaction for years, possibly decades, treat you as if you no longer exist.  They refuse to associate with you and you are ostracized from your home church.

[4] Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada 2012


Researchers Talk About Forced Marriage at the Conable Conference in International Studies and Forced Marriage Symposium (Videos)