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The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915

By Sarah Carter

Review By Katie Pickles

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 160 Winter 2008-2009  | p. 125-127

This sophisticated and engaging book has much to offer a number of scholarly areas, including Canadian history, gender studies, and political and legal studies. Working from a massive bedrock of diverse primary materials, Sarah Carter challenges assumptions about the institution of marriage, revealing its complexities and importance in the colonial past. In command of a multidisciplinary secondary literature, including legal studies and anthropology, her immediate focus is on western Canada, defined as the three prairie provinces, with particular focus on the region of southern Alberta. Throughout the book there is occasional discussion of British Columbia, especially in relation to the administration of “Indian affairs,” but Carter is hyper-aware of the complexities and distinctiveness of the local. Where relevant, she does, however, draw salient provincial and international comparisons (e.g., aside from British Columbia, with Washington State and Iraq).

At the most general level, Carter’s book  demonstrates that the monogamous model is not ancient and universal, as was advocated by nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonizers and remains a commonly held view of many conservative thinkers. For Carter, there is no single definition of marriage: it changes over time and varies by culture. Her book documents the “importance of being monogamous” during her chosen time period, through the views of missionaries, government officials, and first-wave feminists. While Aboriginal peoples are her focus, she extends her coverage interculturally to consider those in western Canada who were also deemed polygamous by hegemonic settlers – in particular, Mormons, Doukhobors, and Ukrainians.

In a book about morals, Carter, while not shying from indicating inequities and prejudices, attempts to be non-judgemental with regard to the myriad of attitudes and laws towards marriage that clashed, with massive effect, in western Canada from European colonization until 1915. She is keen to capture and to understand precolonial marital relationships. She argues that Plains Aboriginal marriages were far removed from the narrow definition found in English common law. Economically grounded, Aboriginal family law allowed for easier divorce than did the English model and also permitted same-sex marriage. Considering marriage as an inherently gendered enterprise, Carter takes the position of women well beyond “victim” history, deconstructing the adamant views of some first-wave feminists, which held that there was Aboriginal child marriage and “traffic in Indian girls” as well as that polygamy disempowered, or “caged” women.

Carter argues that colonization entailed the construction of “manly space” (283) and saw Aboriginal women newly caught between patriarchy and imperialism. Throughout the period under examination Aboriginal peoples were increasingly compelled to conform to the laws, attitudes, and expectations that governed all married people in the rest of Canada. Despite strong resistance, the attempt to entrench monogamy had devastating effects for many. Aboriginal women outside of the monogamous model were “put away,” becoming deserted women with children who were unable to marry. So strong was the dogma surrounding monogamy that the welfare of women and children was not the primary concern of officials. 

A theme throughout this book is Aboriginal resistance to the attempts of colonial authorities to enforce compulsory monogamy. Aboriginal peoples persistently fought to retain Aboriginal laws. The late nineteenth-century climate was one of Aboriginal defiance of and protest over efforts to abolish polygamy. Carter documents the widespread indifference and opposition of Aboriginal peoples to Christian marriage, with the first marriage of a Blackfoot couple not taking place through the “proper” channel of a marriage certificate until 1895. The colonial past was complicated: officials had to be pragmatic and recognize the need to change slowly. Legal concessions also had to be made. For example, in 1887, it was necessary to recognize Aboriginal marriage (if monogamous) as valid but not Aboriginal divorce. Complete control over Aboriginal intimate relationships was not a feature of the period under study.

From 1893, deliberate, concerted, and invasive attempts to eradicate polygamy became prominent, as enforced by the Department of Indian Affairs. Carter’s book documents the increasing arm of the state through the establishment of residential schools, which implemented methods common throughout Canada. As Carter writes, state officials considered it “Best to not only keep them [Aboriginals] on their reserves, as isolated as possible, but to keep them under the control of their husbands, as in the cherished colonial monogamous model of marriage” (153). Aboriginals were wards to be colonized. The efforts to instill monogamous marriage included matchmaking at residential schools and the organization of mass weddings. 

This book has many strengths. It draws upon an excellent command of legal history, the depth and breadth of knowledge it displays on the topic is truly impressive, and it is written with a measured, yet passionate voice. It makes excellent use of photographs, and the text’s handsome layout makes for ease of reading. It is an important study that opens up multiple areas for further research; in particular, exploration of the limits of the law to control the intimate histories of people going about their everyday lives.