Polyamorous relationships are on the rise in Canada. The law is still catching up

You can have more than one friend at a time. You can love multiple family members equally.

So what’s the difference if you’re in a meaningful, consensual romantic relationship with more than one person at once? That’s the general philosophy behind polyamorous relationships, and a new report says they’re on the rise.

Steph Davidson, 41, a publicist in Toronto, said not only is she seeing more polyamorous people in her circles and on dating apps, but there’s a wider social acceptance and understanding.

“My friends, when I first started dating someone who was non-monogamous, their immediate instinct was ‘you deserve all of someone,'” Davidson told CBC News. “And now they’re, like, ‘I’m really happy for you, and this really seems to be a great fit for who you are and the way that you live.'”

Polyamory is a deliberate relationship structure where everyone can have as many romantic partners as they want, according to Egale Canada, a 2SLGBTQ+ advocacy organization. There is knowledge and consent with everyone involved, and people may live with one partner, multiple partners or no partners, explains the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association.

It’s a form of consensual non-monogamy and one of the growing types of diverse families in Canada, notes a report from the Vanier Institute of the Family released last week.

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The national independent think-tank, which is dedicated to understanding families and family life in Canada, cites a 2019 study from the Journal of Sex Research that says about one in five people in this country have practised consensual non-monogamy.

The Vanier Institute also notes that people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ are more likely to have practised consensual non-monogamy than people who identify as heterosexual. That’s echoed by Egale Canada, which explains that people in polyamorous relationships “are free to express their sexuality regardless of gender.”

Davidson, who is polyamorous, has had an anchor partner for just under two years. (She prefers the term anchor to primary, which implies a hierarchy). They don’t live together. In addition, she has several other relationships of various styles and depths.

A smiling person in a pink shirt holding a cup of coffee
Steph Davidson, 41, a publicist in Toronto, is currently in relationships with four people. She says polyamory is an honest and open relationship style, and communication is key. (Submitted by Steph Davidson)

Davidson identifies as queer, and while her anchor relationship is with a man, some of her other partners are women or non-binary. She said she currently has four partners, which includes her anchor, who also has multiple partners.

“There are different styles of polyamory. My partner and I tend to get to know each other’s partners, we establish relationships with the other folks in their lives and spend time together, but that’s not mandatory,” she said.

“It’s just what works for everybody involved and what’s comfortable for everybody.”

The ‘data gap’

Despite the growing popularity, there’s a “data gap” on polyamorous relationships since they’re not included in the census, the Vanier Institute notes, and research is sparse. It says further research is needed for “strengthening understanding of polyamorous families and ensuring they are included in laws and policies.”

While polyamory differs from open marriage — another type of consensual non-monogamy that generally involves one couple primarily committed to each other, with sex allowed outside that relationship — open marriage research gives insight into attitudes about relationships outside of a traditional partnership.

In 2023, the Pew Research Center in the United States found that 33 per cent of the adults surveyed said open marriages were “acceptable.” That proportion skyrocketed to 75 per cent among the 2SLGBTQ+ respondents (versus 29 per cent among those who identified as straight).

The findings are based on a sample of 5,073 U.S. respondents, with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points

The Vanier Institute explains that polyamorous relationships are diverse, with some centred around “long-term, committed relationships with two or more people, while others may have a mix of short-term and long-term relationships with varying degrees of intimacy and commitment.”

It’s an honest and open relationship style, and communication is key, Davidson said.

“No one is trying to pull one over on their partners. True polyamory is not about hiding things and not about cheating.”

Polyamory is also different from polygamy, where someone is married to multiple people, which is illegal in Canada and sometimes associated with religion

Law assumes 2 people in a relationship

But while polyamory may be on the rise, Canadian law doesn’t recognize intimate relationships between more than two people, the Vanier Institute explains, and this leaves people to “navigate and interact with systems and institutions that were not designed to support them.”

The laws are responsive to social trends and changes, such as adapting to the rise of common-law marriages, but there’s still a significant lag, said John-Paul Boyd, a Calgary-based family lawyer and the former executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, which published its own research on polyamory in 2017.

“If there’s anything in society that reflects the presumption of the dyadic relationship, it is the law,” he said. “There is this sort of built-in, explicit and implicit assumption that relationships come in only pairs.”

That’s true for every aspect of the law, whether you’re looking at the Canada Pension Plan, how employment insurance benefits are calculated or who you can name as your beneficiary for health and dental benefits, Boyd said.

And only people who meet the legal definition of spouse or common-law partner are entitled to property rights or to ask for spousal support, he said. (Some provinces, like British Columbia, have amended their laws to give common-law partners the same property rights as married couples.)

Then there’s the issue of how many guardians a child of people in a polyamorous relationship can have, which also varies by province, Boyd said. But a few recent cases have helped broaden the law.

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In 2018, three unmarried adults in Newfoundland and Labrador were declared the legal parents of a child born within their polyamorous family — a legal first in Canada, CBC News reported. Then in 2021, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ordered that all three members of a polyamorous triad should be registered as parents of the boy they were raising together as a family.

“Put bluntly, the legislature did not contemplate polyamorous families,” Justice Sandra Wilkinson said in the decision.

Three men in bright golf shirts smile and hold hands
Alejandro Rodriguez, left, Victor Hugo Prada and Manuel Bermudez talk at their home in Medellín, Colombia, on June 17, 2017. The three men gained legal recognition as the first polyamorous family in the country. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)

There have also been a few recent legal gains in Latin America, where polyamory has been reported to be on the rise. In 2017, three men in Medellín, Colombia, became the country’s first legally recognized polyamorous family. In 2022, a judge in Buenos Aires, Argentina, issued a ruling legally allowing a child born in a polyamorous relationship to have two dads and one mom.

That same year, a judge in Mexico said he could “find no constitutional reason why marriage should only be between two partners,” according to a report in Mexico News Daily.

Planning and consent

Boyd said he’s also seeing an increase in polyamorous relationships, and the fact that there are sometimes legal complications for those involved is important but usually not enough to prevent a relationship from moving forward.

That’s because most people involved in long-term polyamorous relationships have already talked about how their relationship will work, he said, including the expectations, arrangements and legal outcomes.

Honesty and informed consent are critical to these relationships, where there aren’t the same kinds of social assumptions found with a traditional couple, Boyd said.

“I would frankly wish that more people entering into dyadic relationships would have that similar kind of discussion,” he said.

Steph Davidson said open communication is central to making her relationships work.

“We’re all just trying to create a relationship style that works for us and not harm other people.”

Three people walking in a park hold hands
May Ferreira, Deb Barreiro and Gabriel Lopez walk in Pueyrredon park in Buenos Aires, in February 2020. There have been a few recent legal gains in Latin America, where polyamory has reportedly been on the rise. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)


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