Monogamy on the Frontier

I wrote this book review as an assignment for a class at Athabasca University. It’s not perfect, and my tutor, Laurel Halladay, noted quite a few things I could do better. But it was still an excellent book, worth reading and sharing. All errors in this review are mine.

Sarah Carter’s The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 is about how the Dominion of Canada and organized Christian religions joined together to create a marriage tradition that would build Canada as a stable nation. Christian monogamy was seen to be necessary as a way to shape gender relations into something that would help bring the west under the wing of the Canadian nation. Monogamous and same-race marriages were seen to be the foundation for this nation-building project. Carter’s book records their efforts to create monogamy as a cultural value and documents the efforts to tame alternative practices.

Carter’s title is a nod to the Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest. The play is a comedy about class romances, full of nonsensical aristocratic principles and fools running in circles. This is also echoed in the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche that begins Carter’s book noting the arrogance of those who creating values for profit. Both of these cultural influences set the stage for an examination of the farce that imposed monogamy was in the late nineteenth century.

Carter’s argument focuses on the constructed sanctity of traditional marriage as a pillar of a stable society. “My hope is that this study establishes that the monogamous model is not ancient and universal… And contrary to the claims [of] others, the monogamous model did not always enhance the well-being of all Canadians in the past” (p. 16-17). When Carter notes “a variety of forces combined to contain and undermine alternative logics and to ensure the ascendancy of the monogamous, intra-racial model in Western Canada, seen as vital to the stability and prosperity of the newest region of the Dominion,” she could have been discussing present-day same-sex marriages as much as the post-Confederation arguments (p. 6).

Carter explores the unions within cultures such as First Nations, Ukrainians, Doukhobors, Muslims, and Mormons. She identifies alternative marriage practises such as “jumping the broom” and “wife sales.” Carter also notes alternative lifestyles such as men who lived like women, and women who were “manly-hearted.” However, much of the law and efforts focused on polygamous practises and aboriginal marriages.

The government and religious groups began their crusade for monogamy with disregard toward First Nations relationships. As these aboriginal partnerships were not solemnized with appropriate piety, permitted divorce, and encouraged remarriage, they were struck down as inapplicable. However, if First Nations marriage weren’t official, those with more than one wife couldn’t be classified as polygamous and instead were merely immoral. In order to refute the practice of plural wives, the government had to recognize the First Nations’ unions as binding. That recognition did not include remarriage and divorce however: “the validity and legality of Aboriginal marriage (when it closely matched the definition of marriage acceptable to jurists) was upheld in the courts in mid-nineteenth-century Canada” (p. 144).

When plural wives were cast off to fit the rule of monogamy, women were abandoned without support. Many First Nations women no longer fit in on the Reserve. “Married women’s dower rights were abolished in Western Canada in 1886,” which meant a husband left his wife with nothing when he died, and had the absolute right to dispose of any property while he was alive (p. 24). Inheritances were fought over in the courts as well, as children fought over who was legitimate (p. 234). The morality of mothers became fair game in choosing who would receive any inheritances.

In chapters five and six, Carter discusses the backlash from the efforts towards monogamy. Once First Nations marriage was officially accepted, the First Nations people recognized that their betrothed or wedded girls would not be sent into the Residential school system. About this time, the sale of aboriginal girls to men seeking wives or playmates became a scandal reported throughout Canada. Those suspected of wrongdoing were threatened with loss of rations, fines, hard labour, and on the rare occasion, legal action.

In addition to this, Carter notes, marriage was also about man asserting his dominance over woman. The government sent the man of the household all treaty or scrip payments for the home’s inhabitants. A man with more than one woman in his care received multiple payments, which, in some situations, alerted government agents to plural wives (p. 200).

Further, monogamy wasn’t just about one man and one woman; it was about intra-racial marriage in which the woman served the man (p. 204). White women who married First Nations men ceased to be white. And vice versa: First Nations women gave up their culture and place on the reserve to marry a white man without guaranteed entry to society.

The laws against bigamy were also applied to women who had been abandoned for a subsequent wife. Women could not homestead without a husband; for a woman to hold sole ownership of property, she had to purchase it outright (p. 75). Thus the valuation of monogamy degraded the worth of women while empowering men.

While Carter does not share much on the slavery of supernumerary wives, she does review the idea of sister wives. The Mormons of Cardston, AB were cited their supernumerary wives as helpmeets to each other through the drudgery and labour of the pioneer woman*. Neither does Carter go into depth on the prominent place of the first wife or the hierarchy of the subsequent wives. There may be more factors that contribute to the societal ideal of rescuing women by banning polygamy.

Carter uses primary sources to establish her thesis including court and mission records, government documents, newspapers and letters. While reporting on both the government efforts and the reaction of the people evenly, the frustration of the correspondence belies the farcical nature of the movement towards intra-racial monogamy. Whereas the Wilde play she refers to her in the title of this work was denigrated for withholding a moral, Carter’s work speaks plainly against monogamy for the sake of building a stable nation.

Carter also compares these nation building efforts to those of other countries as well as British colonies. She takes a well-rounded view of monogamy within the world and she points out it is not the natural state for many cultures. She advises monogamy did not always contribute to stability. Her review notes that divorce, when permitted in cultures, often led to happier people and stronger ties. The monogamous marriages imposed upon First Nations people “had to be permanent, exclusive, and voluntary all of which reflected a profound misunderstanding of the complexity and flexibility of Aboriginal marriage law” (p. 234). Those unhappy in their union were left to fester in the small, close-knit communities, whereas divorce allowed the person to leave.

Carter’s subject is engaging and thoughtfully written. While often circular and repetitive, the ideas represented do contribute to a strong foundational case against the necessity for marriage as defined by church and state. She successfully identifies monogamy as a newer practise that did leave some Canadians in the cold. Current informal societal perspective suggests the majority of today’s marriages are monogamous, while polygamy is still looked down up on and divorcees are subject to stigma as a result of the historical imposition of monogamy.

That said, Canada of today recognizes alternative lifestyles and marriage, and stigma is decreasing. Carter’s book will remain important in battling stigma and defending feminism against the old days where families were stable because they had a white mom and white dad had white kids and stayed together ‘til death did them part.



*this is noted in chapter two, page not recorded


Carter, Sarah. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Athabasca University Press, 2008.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. London: Leonard Smithers and Co. 1898. Google Play edition.