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April 9, 2008
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v2.1 Reference

The Importance of Being Monogamous

Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915

Sarah Carter provides a detailed description of marriage as a diverse social institution in nineteenth-century Western Canada, and the subsequent ascendancy of Christian, lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous marriage as an instrument to implement dominant British-Canadian values. It took work to impose the monogamous model of marriage as the region was home to a varied population of Aboriginal people and newcomers such as the Mormons, each of whom had their own definitions of marriage, including polygamy and flexible attitudes toward divorce. The work concludes with an explanation of the negative social consequences for women, particularly Aboriginal women, that arose as a result of the imposition of monogamous marriage. "Of an immense amount of new and pathbreaking research on Native people over the past 20 years, this work stands out." -Sidney L. Harring, Professor of Law at City University of New York and author of White Man's Law: Native People in Nineteenth-Century Canadian Jurisprudence

About the Author

Sarah Carter, FRSC, is Professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of History and Classics and in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She is a specialist in the history of Western Canada and is the author of Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900, Capturing Women, and Lost Harvests. From Saskatoon, she studied Canadian history at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba. In 2020, she was awarded the Killam Prize in the Humanities.


"A specialist in the history of western Canada, Carter (history and classics, and native studies, U. of Alberta-Edmonton) does not have to reach very far, or very far back, to demonstrate that The Traditional Family fantasized by 21st-century neo-cons is not very old, and has never come close to ubiquitous. The notion of an eternal, monogamous marriage had more to do with nation building than with personal relationships, she finds, and was contested in just about every available arena when the elite tried to impose it during the late 19th century. Distributed in the US by Michigan State University Press." Book News, Inc., November 2008

"Varied forms of marriage predominated in the interracial fur-trade society before Canada acquired the North-West Territories and began its colonial occupation of the land after 1870. A richly complex society existed in the Canadian West before 1870. When the Dominion of Canada gained the Northwest, it felt the need to impose its own vision on what seemed a frighteningly expansive and strange environment. The many single men, and some single women, moving west posed a further threat to the unified Anglo-Canadian vision of family farms spreading to the western horizon. The example of the United States, with its looser divorce laws and rambunctious approach to western expansion, posed another threat. ... The Importance of Being Monogamous provides a fascinating account of how, especially between 1870 and 1915, when patriotic British imperial fervour saw the dominant entrenchment of the new order, the complex social order based on aboriginal and Métis models was finally eclipsed. Carter uses government records, advice books, fiction, missionary statements, and a broad range of sources to indicate how this transformation was articulated by those imposing it during a crucial period of our history. Land surveys, homestead regulations, and other official instruments were used to impose the monogamous model, frequently at the expense of women, many of whom were left destitute to raise their children by deserting husbands who could not be divorced. The role of the Indian Affairs Department also receives a close examination in this book, painting a discouraging picture of how it became the means of attempting to invade aboriginal cultures. ... Sarah Carter's book forms an important chapter in the story of Western Canada's transformation." Ken Tingley, Edmonton Journal, Dec. 7, 2008

"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....[The book] 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." Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury, BC Studies, Winter 2008/09

"The Importance of Being Monogamous is one of those books that make you wonder why its subject has not been the focus of a major study until now... Using Missionary publications, newspapers, travelers' accounts, government circulars and correspondence, and legal decisions, Sarah Carter explores how Christian, monogamous, heterosexual marriage was imposed on Aboriginals and Mormons in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Western Canada as part of the federal government's nation-building agenda. ... Indeed, before the late nineteenth-century monogamous marriage was not a foregone conclusion; it was a deliberate choice on the part of white, Christian, middle-class politicians, government officials, and reformers to make it the foundation for a new nation. ... Carter explores in more detail Plains Aboriginals' marriage customs as well the imposition of the monogamous model and its implications for women. Pointing to a persistent bias among scholars and legal experts, she argues convincingly that the term "marriage" should also apply to the diverse forms of unions found in Aboriginal societies in Western Canada. ... The Importance of Being Monogamous is a fine contribution to the study of British imperialism and colonialism and its reproduction in the Canadian context." - Melanie Brunet, College universitaire de Saint-Boniface, H-Canada, Dec. 2008

"This is too important a book to be confined to the libraries of scholars, even though they may be the principal targets of a university publisher. Sarah Carter, professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, sets out to show the function of monogamy, which some termed the 'fortress of marriage,' in incorporating Western Canada into the Dominion of Canada. In the process she depicts two major consequences, seemingly more relevant to race and gender status than nation building: the manipulation of First Nations and the reduction of the status of women, notably those of First Nations.... It is profoundly depressing to contemplate the destructiveness of Euro- Canadian interference in the aboriginal cultures (including those of the Canadian West) in the late Victorian era. Prior to colonial times, marriage in aboriginal cultures, according to Carter's findings, was often rich in ceremony and spirituality....The Importance of Being Monogamous is a worthy example of history amplified and enriched." Ron Kirbyson, The Winnipeg Free Press, May 3, 2009

"Historian Carter's study of marriage as a social institution in Western Canada seeks to destabilize the notion that monogamous unions are the ancient and unquestionable foundations of family-and thus community-life. Attempts by missionaries and the government to establish and reward monogamous marriage and punish alternative marriage brought these forces into conflict with Mormon settlers and with various First Nations. Harsh legislation also punished widows, single women, and wives deserted by their husbands. In an excellent chapter on Aboriginal marriage, Carter (Native Studies, University of Alberta) does a fine job of showing how the polygamy of some tribes was actually a source of freedom for women, in contrast to the strict laws governing marriage and divorce for white settlers. She examines the efforts of missionaries and officials to establish monogamous marriages for tribal people, in a belief that monogamy would elevate tribal women to the glorified status of white wives, many of whom were in a greater state of slavery within their marriages than Aboriginal women. This vast book is a thorough social and legal exploration into the settlement of Western Canada and the contested role that marriage played in establishing the nation." J. B. Edwards, Choice, May 2009

"Sarah Carter ultimately succeeds in convincing the reader that the monogamous model of marriage was not an inevitable institution, and that it required much effort to impose it on Plains Aboriginals, as well as to make the gender order appear like a natural progression. Through her intimate knowledge and incredibly well-researched account of the West in the late nineteenth century, she provides the reader with many compelling stories of experiences endured by Aboriginals, and the British colonists' often incredulous responses. The enlightening anecdotes and cogent discussion make this book appealing to a broad audience." Adrienne Roy, Saskatchewan Law Review, May 2009

"...prairie First Nations people had lived with diverse forms of marriage-including monogamy, polygamy and same-sex marriage-for centuries, to happy and harmonious effect. Divorce was easily obtained, remarriage was common and accepted, and, as Carter discovered, almost everyone had a spouse except those who didn't want to be married. In fur-trader society, many Métis marriages also followed this more flexible pattern. But in order to build a new nation in its own image, British colonizers used the Christian marriage model to "maintain the new settlers' social and sexual distance from the Aboriginal population," argues Carter in her illustrated and meticulously researched book....Indian Affairs had enormous power to dictate terms of marriage, sanctioning matches they liked and prohibiting ones they didn't, says Carter....While all of this seems far removed from contemporary life, Carter's study serves as an important reminder that the definition of marriage can never be taken for granted and is always a reflection of a particular time and place, subject to the manipulations and abuses of state power. As the Book Publishers' Award jury put it, 'this year's recipient is a book that has the potential to make a long-lasting impact on the study of early Canadian history, as well as current national policy...This is a first-rate example of why scholarly monographs matter.'" Geoff McMaster, Folio, May 25, 2009

"In Sarah Carter's book about the project to impose the model of monogamous, heterosexual, Christian marriage in a region that was dense with long-established alternative practices, one reads of late nineteenth-century missionaries and Indian agents undertaking matchmaking, forced separations and reconciliations, campaigns of gender retraining, and determinations of immoral character and illegitimacy. While the reach of colonial bureaucratic power extended far into family life, its hold on this terrain of domesticity was never total. Carter assembles a vast archive of policy directives, correspondence, legal decisions, journalism, census data, exploration and travel literature, missionary and police reports, and early social science to provide this fascinating account of the tensions and uncertainties, the unpredictable contradictions and loopholes, created by the effort to unravel ancient systems of social organization through the imposition of a different moral code." Jennifer Henderson, American Historical Review, June 2009

"Recent debates concerning the legality of gay marriage in North America reveal how fully the definition of marriage is intertwined with both public attitudes and government policy. This is not a new development. Sarah Carter's book analyzes government efforts to impose an approved model of marriage on western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A model that helped define the West as a space in which men (as monogamous husbands) were to be in control, especially of their wives.... Carter's volume builds on work by earlier historians, including Catherine Cavanaugh and Nancy Cott, to offer a well-reasoned and strongly supported analysis of an important but often overlooked intersection between gender and politics—the ways that the institution of marriage has served as a means for nations to define and differentiate themselves." Bethany Andreasen, Minot State University, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Spring 2009

"Carter uses an impressive array of sources, including newspapers, contemporary writings, parliamentary, church, and court records, letters, and, notably in Chapter Four, stories of courting and marriage told among the Blackfoot, to show how marriage was created and contested in western Canada." Katrina Srigley, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Volume 28-2, 2008

"This impressive and engaging book offers a carefully crafted historical account of efforts to impose a Christian, heterosexual monogamous model of marriage upon the heterogeneous population of Western Canada from European colonization to 1915.... Central to Carter's analysis is her argument that the intentional and intense promotion of 'the importance of being monogamous' was key to gendered and racialized nation building of this period; it helped forge a British Canadian identity in Western Canada and was necessary for the wealth accumulation of white male settler society. ... That colonial authorities employed lifelong, heterosexual monogamous marriage as a tool to organize gender, racial and property relations on the Prairies is solidly grounded in the author's use of a wide range of primary materials and legal history. She brings abstract law and policies to life, illustrating the egregious consequences for women (especially Aboriginal women)." Suzanne Lenon, Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal, 34.1, 2009 [Full review at]

"In this outstanding book, Sarah Carter demonstrates how Canadian nation builders deemed their model of monogamous marriage to be essential to the colonization of the Canadian West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.... One of the greatest strengths of Carter's book is that it situates this project in western Canada within the context of other colonial situations.... Carter has written an important book that will challenge scholars of other colonial regions, particularly the U.S. West, to pursue similar questions. It is a compelling text that deserves wide attention." Margaret D. Jacobs, Pacific Historical Review, February 2010 (full review at

"Carter admirably wades through the complex and tangled webs of policy and legal precedents surrounding indigenous marriage laws and state policy. She clearly explains the insidious ways the state tried to control indigenous people and the means by which indigenous people resisted domestic invasion. She provides insightful comparisons to other colonial situations and consistently places her findings in a variety of historiographical contexts. Although this book speaks broadly to colonialism in the British Empire and state policy in Canada, it is grounded in case studies of the Canadian West, where Plains indigenous cultures, the numbered treaties, and the arrival of diverse immigrants created specific circumstances for a fierce matrimonial struggle.... The Importance of Being Monogamous makes a significant contribution..." Carolyn Podruchny, The Western Historical Quarterly, Spring 2010

"The Importance of Being Monogamous is of crucial importance to all legal academics, practitioners and students interested in exploring critically law's understanding of and approach to 'unorthodox' marriages. Carter's analysis holds much value at the moment given its resonance with the current public discourse and debate on polygamy....As on the colonial frontier, polygamy is again being used to label and impugn a minority group held out as anathema to Canadian 'family values.' In bringing this trajectory between past and present to light, The Importance of Being Monogamous will be of clear relevance to pending judicial evaluations of the effectiveness and legality of section 293 of the Criminal Code." Angela Campbell, Ottawa Law Review, 2009-2010

"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.... 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.... The book is full of such untold stories, making it a must-read beyond the confines of 'regional' Canadian history." Karen Dubinsky, University of Toronto Quarterly, Winter 2010 [Full article at:]

"In this brilliantly titled book Sarah Carter again demonstrates her pre-eminence in the field of Western Canadian history, especially in the area of Native-newcomer relations. Already a prize-winning monograph, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building to 1915, serves as a stark reminder of the excessive limits to which Western Canadian colonial authorities would go to disrupt traditional marriage patterns and impose monogamy on Aboriginal Westerners and newcomers to the region.... Carter's book is essential, not just for those interested in gender, race, and colonization but for those who wish to have any hope of understanding Western Canadian or Canadian history. It can easily be used for undergraduate or graduate students in any number of courses.... This is a beautifully produced book with a wide array of the most useful and telling photographs." Myra Rutherdale, Labour/Le Travail 65 (May 2010)

"The Importance of Being Monogamous chronicles how the nineteenth-century conception of Christian-sanctioned marriage was used as an instrument to shape the settler and Aboriginal communities. The anxiety over marriage stemmed from the intensive colonization of a period that saw the arrival of immigrant families in areas where Aboriginal peoples, with their diverse marriage laws, practices and ceremonies, outnumbered newcomers....What makes Carter's work particularly compelling is her painstaking use of Canadian government documents, Hudson's Bay Company employee accounts, and divorce court proceedings that expose the Department of Indian Affairs' obsession with replacing that historical form of union with a 'new' family code." Katherine Ann Roberts, American Review of Canadian Studies, March 2010

"Sarah Carter's The Importance of Being Monogamous is a timely study of Canada's efforts at the turn of the twentieth century to impose monogamy on its western frontier in communities long used to fur trade marriage by the custom of the country. Today the staus of plural marriages is a contentious issue facing some jurisdictions....Carter's new book offers a rich, well-documented historical context for those involved in such challenging areas of public policy....Most scholars of Canada's Aboriginal policies have recognized the role of church and state in attempting to eliminate polygamy. What Sarah Carter has done that is new and significant is, first, to embed this broad narrative of Aboriginal policy in a more widely conceived study of state efforts to shape as well the nonconforming marriage practices of newcomers....Second, she links the creation of this 'gendered space' to Ottawa's formal policy of nation building....Sarah Carter's writing is accessible, her judgments are balanced and restrained, although the apparent dismissal of the 'slavery' of second and third wives is a little unnerving. The questions confronted here, such as the meaning of marriage, changing gender roles, the defining of race and the power of the state, are, or course, those that will resonate with the current generation of college and university students. This book will be used, and its substantial research base will ensure it a long life." Jean Friesen, Great Plains Quarterly, Fall 2009

"Carter's study of Native people is excellent and reveals her vast knowledge of the topic. She shows how missionaries tried to mould Indians into the traditional Christian marriage and, after treaty, how the government enshrined such marriages into their status and other legal documents. The author provides appropriate examples of how Indian Department regulations negatively affected Native women in such matters as arranged marriages, requiring permission to marry, a ban on divorce, and threat of the loss of legal status." Alberta History, Winter 2011

"[Carter] demonstrates that monogamy was not just an 'Indian' issue; Canadian authorities also challenged non-conforming minorities of European background. These groups, often small and dispersed, were less successful than established Aboriginal communities in subverting and resisting the pressures imposed on their modes of marriage and divorce.... The next four chapters focus largely on Aboriginal marriage practices and on governmental and church efforts to achieve control over marriage through regulations and pressures towards conversion, "civilization," and assimilation. Carter draws useful comparisons with regulations in British colonies in Africa and Asia and those in the United States to amplify perspectives and provide context.... Chapter 7, 'Administering First Nations Marriage and Divorce,' is a tour de force that reveals the problems faced by Indian Affairs officials as they attempted to develop and enforce consistent rules.... Paradoxically, the binding nature of 'legal' marriage as defined by Canadian authorities in these years led many who came from other traditions to avoid it in the first place." Jennifer S.H. Brown, Histoire sociale / Social History, November 2010

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