On 20 June 2016, the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family began a study on Canadian perceptions of polyamory, advertised with the assistance of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, gathering preliminary data with a public survey. The information gathered thus far, from the 547 people who answered our survey, paints a fascinating picture of polyamorous individuals and their family arrangements, and has important implications for the future of family law in Canada.
The polyamorous families we are looking at are those created by three or more freely consenting adults, in distinction to faith-based, and usually patriarchal, forms of polygamy that exist in much of Africa, the Middle East and North America, the latter of which have been popularized in shows like Big Love and Sister Wives. The population we are studying place a high value on equality and honesty, and the rights of individuals to leave a relationship when and how they wish. This population, however, is roughly divided into two groups: “white picket fence” polyamorists, as one informant put it, who see their relationships as committed, stable family arrangements; and, polyamorists who shun monogamy, describe themselves as relationship anarchists or consensual non-monogamists, and engage in an evolving web of relationships of varying degrees of longevity and mutual obligation.
The majority of survey respondents live in British Columbia (35.6%), Ontario (28.7%) and Alberta (17.6%), see Figure 1, and are between 25 and 44 years old (74.4%), see Figure 2. Respondents tend to be younger than the Canadian population as a whole, see Figure 2.1 (Canadian population data from Statistics Canada 2011 Census, catalogue no. 98-311-XCB2011025).
Most respondents had completed some form of post-secondary education, most commonly undergraduate degrees (26.3%), followed by post-graduate or professional degrees (19.2%) and college diplomas (16.3%), see Figure 3. Respondents reported significantly higher levels of educational attainment than most Canadians: 37% of respondents reported holding an undergraduate university degree, compared to 17% of the general population; and, 19% of respondents reported holding a post-graduate or professional degree, compared to 8% of the general population, see Figure 3.1 (Canadian population data from Statistics Canada estimate for June 2016, CANSIM table 282-0003).
Although almost half of respondents had annual incomes of less than $39,999 (46.8%), see Figure 4, almost two-thirds of respondents were not the sole income-earner in their household (65.4%) and more than three-fifths of respondents’ households (62.3%) had incomes between $80,000 and $149,999 per year, also see Figure 4. Compared to the Canadian population, fewer respondents (47%) had incomes less than $40,000 per year than the general population (60%), and more respondents (31%) had incomes of $60,000 or more per year than the general population (23%), see Figure 4.1 (Canadian population data from Statistics Canada estimate for 2014, CANSIM table 206-0051).
Slightly less than one-third of respondents identified as male (30%) and almost three-fifths identified as female (59.7%); the rest identified as genderqueer (3.5%), gender fluid (3.2%), transgender (1.3%) or “other” (2.2%). A plurality of respondents described their sexuality as either heterosexual (39.1%) or bisexual (31%), see Figure 5.
More than three-fifths of respondents (68%) said that they are currently in a polyamorous relationship. Almost two-fifths of the respondents who said that they are not currently in a polyamorous relationship (39.9%) said that they had been in such a relationship within the last five years.
Most of respondents’ polyamorous relationships involved three adults (50.4%), see Figure 6, but only a fifth of respondents said that the members of their relationship lived in a single household (19.7%). Where the members of a polyamorous family lived in more than one household, most lived in two households (44.3%) or three households (22.2%), see Figure 7.
Where the members of a polyamorous family live in one household, three-fifths of those households involved at least one married couple (61.2%), and there was only one married couple in those households. Where the members of a polyamorous family lived in more than one household, almost half involved at least one married couple (45.4%), and 85% of those households involved one married couple while the remainder involved two married couples (12.9%), three married couples (1.4%) and more than three married couples (0.7%).
In the past five years, 53.4% of respondents said that one or more individuals had been added to their family. Women and men tend to join and leave ménages in roughly equal numbers, see Figures 8 and 9.
Almost a quarter of respondents (23.2%) said that at least one child under the age of 19 lives full-time in their household, and 8.7% said that at least one child lives part-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian, see Figure 10.
Slightly less than one-third of respondents (32.2%) said that they had taken legal steps to formalize some aspect of the rights and responsibilities of the members of their family. Most of these respondents had signed emergency authorizations (57.4%), followed by relationship agreements (34.7%) and powers of attorney for medical matters (22.7%), see Figure 11.
Most respondents said that they support the equality of members of their relationships, regardless of gender or parental status, see Figure 12, and that members have the obligation to be honest with each other and the right to have a say in changes to their relationship, see Figure 13. When asked about the extent to which they agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of gender or gender identity, for example, 82.1% strongly agreed and 12.5% agreed with the statement. More than half (52.9%) strongly agreed and 21.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of parental or guardianship status. Most (89.2%) strongly agreed and 9.2% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous should have the responsibility to be honest and forthright with each other.
Although 82.4% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the number of people who identify as polyamorous is increasing and 80.9% agreed or strongly agreed that the number of people who are openly involved in polyamorous relationships is increasing, respondents had mixed, and generally negative, views about public attitudes toward polyamory, see Figure 14.
Despite concern about the impact of the prohibition against polygamy in s. 293 of the Criminal Code on public acceptance of their relationships, the prohibition does not deter respondents from pursuing the relationships they choose, see Figure 15.
The growing popularity of polyamory suggests that the meaning of “family” continues to evolve in Canada. The traditional model of the western nuclear family, consisting of married heterosexual parents and their legitimate offspring, has undergone enormous change in the last two hundred years – attaching family status to unmarried partnerships and legalizing same-sex marriage are only the most recent changes – perhaps expectations as to exclusivity and the dyadic nature of committed relationships are next.
The legal issues potentially plaguing those involved in a polyamorous family are the same as those involved in a dyadic family relationship, less the question of divorce married spouses must answer. Apart from that, however, the parties to a polyamorous relationship will usually need to be concerned with the following matters when the household dissolves or diminishes:
- the care of children after the departure of one or more members from the household;
- the payment of child support;
- entitlement to and liability for spousal support;
- the division of property, including jointly-owned property and claims made in respect of property owned by only one member of the household; and,
- the allocation of debt for which one or more parties are or may become liable.
It is likely time for interested family law lawyers to begin forming practice associations, as we have seen coalesce in relation to assisted reproduction, to share knowledge and expertise on polyamorous families and their legal needs, prepare model retainer agreements and model relationship agreements, monitor amendments to the legislation and developments in the case law, and develop referral networks. Our clients will benefit enormously from resources and talent shared in this manner, and counsel may find advising on polyamorous relationships to be a profitable and stimulating practice niche.
The Institute’s complete report on this study, including the text of the survey, will be available on its website, www.crilf.ca, by December 2016. A paper I wrote for this year’s National Family Law Program discussing how the legislation of the common law provinces address the legal issues involved in polyamorous relationships (British Columbia is the most accommodating, Alberta the least) is available upon request; please send me an email.
John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary.