Anti-Polygamy Laws Imposed by the Federal Government


With the emergence of settler society, many of the social norms of Indigenous groups became seen as morally corrupt, or deviant. The idea of polygamous marriages was foreign to European settlers, was a stark contrast to the Christian marital norms and common law monogamy. Government actors took it upon themselves to discourage the practice of polygamy and eventually entrenched it in law by 1890. It was important for settlers to reinforce the idea of traditional, European, monogamous marriage because they feared it was being disintegrated by the industrial revolution and was a marker for 'de-civilization.' The arrival of the Mormons in the late 1800s further escalated fears held by the state, triggering them to take action against the practice of polygamous marriages.



By passing an anti-polygamy law, it left many Indigenous women in vulnerable positions. It was determined by most ministers which wife was allowed to remain married to her husband. To ensure that the system was fair, they almost always chose the first wife to remain legally married to her Indigenous husband. This was problematic because often times the first wife was the oldest, and any children she may have had would also be older. This resulted in many young Indigenous women being left in dangerous situations because of their young ages and inability to care for their young children on their own. It also interfered with the traditional way of life in many Indigenous communities. Taking multiple wives was seen by the settler colonists as a form of abuse, but in some Indigenous communities it was done out of necessity and with the approval of the other wives. A household with multiple wives in the family meant that there were more people to help with the daily chores, care for children, direct labour, and offered a strong support system. It was  assumed by settler colonists that polygamous marriages was based on sexual desire and subjugated wives, when in fact the wives almost always consented prior to a new wife being married into the household. By newly isolation Indigenous women from these arrangements, many of them lost their shared families, support systems, and partners.


  • Beaman, Lori G. "Church, State and the Legal Interpretation of Polygamy in Canada." Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 8, no. 1 (2004): 20-38. 
  • Rutherdale, Myra, and Katie Pickles. Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada's Colonial past. 2005.