by Joseph Brean
Ontario, Alberta and Quebec have licensed the most child marriages in the last 18 years, said professor Alissa Koski, who researches the practice in Canada
Since 2017, Canada’s government under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals has conducted foreign policy with an explicitly “feminist” approach, especially as it relates to sexual and reproductive health rights.
Part of that has involved trying to eradicate child marriage overseas.
Canada is a leader and key funder of United Nations efforts to end child marriage, which is regarded as a revealing measure of a country’s development.
But there is a curious blind spot.
“There’s been absolutely no reflection on the fact that it remains legal in Canada,” said Alissa Koski, who researches child marriage in Canada as an assistant professor at McGill University’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health.
The bizarre result is that Canada legally permits the very practices it condemns and combats in the developing world.
Child marriage in Canada “is legal and ongoing,” Koski concludes, and not as a rare legal quirk in niche communities of religious extremists, as media coverage often suggests.
Provinces have, in fact, issued marriage licences for 3,382 children over the last 18 years, according to Koski’s presentation to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver.
In absolute numbers, Ontario sanctioned the most child marriages with 1,353 since 2000, then Alberta with 791, Quebec with 590 and British Columbia with 429. She adds that her results likely “underestimate the true extent of the practice.”
It has happened in every region, Koski said. The vast majority are girls; and compared to boys, girls marry at younger ages and to substantially older spouses.
The rate is highest in Alberta, at 5 girls per 10,000, and one boy as measured by data from the year 2016, or 3 children total per 10,000.
Her discovery that Canada has approved at least 3,382 child marriages since 2000 is based on data from vital statistics offices, which indicates the marriage happened in Canada, but otherwise offers limited information.
Further work with census data might offer a clearer picture of demographics, although with the added caveat that it will include marriages that happened in other countries before the person came to Canada.
In the United States, the rate of child marriage is about 6.2 children per 1000, higher in girls than boys (6.8 vs 5.7), lower among white people, higher among Indigenous and Chinese, and ranging from less than 4 children per 1,000 in Maine, Rhode Island and Wyoming, to as much as 10 per 1,000 in West Virginia, Hawaii and North Dakota, according to Koski’s previous studies of child marriage in America.
Her doctoral research was on child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa and India, which fits with the common imagination of the phenomenon as “something that happens elsewhere,” as Koski put it.
For example, her separate research on Canadian media coverage of the issue shows it is almost entirely about Canada’s efforts to eradicate child marriage abroad.
The few exceptions are focused on specific religious minorities, primarily the fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful, B.C., and the fundamentalist Jewish sect Lev Tahor, first in Ste-Agathe-Des-Monts, Que., later in Chatham, Ont.
Canada’s federal Civil Marriage Act sets the minimum age for marriage at 16. Provinces, which administer the licensing, require parental consent for people younger than 18.
But the United Nations, and Canada through its participation in its various programs and documents, regards child marriage as marriage of a child, which is to say someone younger than 18.
The reasons are well known. The proportion of girls who marry before 18 is used as a quantifiable measure of a country’s development progress, Koski said, and it is widely considered a violation of human rights. Research in the US has shown higher mental illness and substance abuse in women who married as girls.
“Child marriage is associated with poor health and economic outcomes, particularly for girls,” she said.
Koski said there seems to be a general political reluctance to raise the age to 18, part of which involves concerns over infringing on religious freedom.