- The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915
Sarah Carter starts her magnificent new book by taking aim at right-wing Alberta journalist Ted Byfield, one of many contemporary conservatives who extol the timeless stability of marriage as a 'fortress' that guards a way of life. Her meticulously researched response stands this argument on its head. Marriage is, historically, complex, convoluted, and all over the map. It defies definition, generalization, and thus sentimentalization. Anxiety-prone defenders of marriage, on the other hand, seem to be made of stone, timeless and unchanged.
In the nineteenth century, argues Carter, Canada was awash in anxieties about marriage. The nation was thought to be under threat, from the 'pernicious, corrupt and immoral' influence of - wait for it - the United States. Relatively liberal divorce laws in the United States (relative to Canada's mate-for-life philosophy) made the United States a particularly sinister neighbour, but the bulk of this book is about a variety of domestic dissenters. The intimate life of nineteenth-century Canadians ranged dramatically. First Nations communities practised monogamy, polygamy, same-sex marriage, and divorce. Mormons practised polygamy, Doukhobors thought the state had no place in their bedrooms, Chinese immigrant women were discouraged by the head tax, and some socialists even set up free love communities. This is not your grandmother's Western Canadian history.
Western Canada - the geographical focus of this book - features heavily in marital anxieties because it was a colonial outpost, on the 'edge of Empire,' as historian Adele Perry has described it. Remoteness from imperial centres of power often creates an especially jittery ruling class, but what was it about marriage customs that made some people so worried and so insistent on imposing a recognizable form of monogamy? Here Carter relies on some of the best of contemporary postcolonial theorizations about the intimacies of empire to show how the imposition of a single standard of gender and family life was a key feature of imperial expansion.
As in other imperial contexts, this was a racialized process, but Carter has told a complicated story here that both highlights and de-centres race as the motor of the story. The imposition of the monogamous model on the First Nations of the prairies was, she argues, but one part of a broader program for the diverse peoples of Western Canada. 'The same cluster of laws, attitudes, and expectations . . . similarly applied to everyone else.' The difference, she suggests, was one of force, not kind; the colonial Canadian state was able to 'invade the domestic affairs of First Nations societies and impose these laws, attitudes, and expectations to [End Page 582] a much greater extent than was possible with other communities.' In places this could use more thought; it's more than 'ironic' - Carter's term - that the only person to be convicted under a Criminal Code amendment designed to prohibit Mormon polygamy was an Aboriginal man. However, that feminists and missionaries argued that Ukrainian girls should also be sent to residential schools is just one example of a detail that, though it has dropped off the historian's radar, contains important, potentially paradigm-altering insights about the relationships among race, ethnicity, and power in Canada's past. Also fascinating is Carter's exploration of how the famous 'Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon' scandal in London resonated in Western Canada on the heels of the Riel Rebellion. The book is full of such untold stories, making it a must-read beyond the confines of 'regional' Canadian history. [End Page 583]
Karen Dubinsky, Department of Global Development Studies and Department of History, Queen's University