Polygamous leader defends church status in tax trial

Polygamous leader Winston Blackmore has come face to face with contradictory statements he has made over his leadership role in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Polygamous leader Winston Blackmore has come face to face with contradictory statements he has made over his leadership role in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Blackmore is facing charges in federal court in Vancouver for allegedly owing up to $1 million in back taxes.

At issue is whether his community in Bountiful B.C. qualifies as a religious congregation under the law and is therefore entitled to special taxation status.

Winston Blackmore, a religious leader in the polygamous community of Bountiful located near Creston, B.C. shares a laugh with six of his daughters and some of his grand children, in 2008. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Under heated cross examination in Vancouver Wednesday by federal government lawyer Lynn Burch, Blackmore at first refused to answer whether or not he thought himself a prophet.

"Answer the question Mr. Blackmore. It's a yes or no," Judge Diane Campbell said.

"No," he replied.

"You don't have a church?" Burch asked.

"I have a church congregation, so I have a church," he answered.

But his testimony contrasts an interview Blackmore had with CNN's Larry King, particularly where he insisted twice he didn't have a church.

"I don't have a church, for one thing. I am just one of a lot of people who believe in the basic, simple fundamentals of our LDS faith and who are trying to live that way with our families," he told King in a December 2006 interview.

"Are you denying these statements?" Burch asked, as she read a transcript of the King interview.

"No, I'm not," he said

Blackmore is fighting a claim that he owes an extra $1.5 million for his taxes from 2000 to 2004 and in 2006.

Blackmore claims his income should be spread around the community and his group should be given special tax status similar to Hutterite colonies, whose members have no property or possessions and work only for the community.

22 wives and 67 children

Residents of Bountiful, in southeast B.C. on the Canada-U.S. border, follow the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, an offshoot of the Mormon church.

Mormons renounced polygamy more than 100 years ago, but Blackmore said he follows the principles set out by church founder Joseph Smith, including plural marriage.

Winston Blackmore's religious beliefs were also put under a microscope last year in an unrelated case into the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law. (CBC)

In court Tuesday, Blackmore admitted to having 21 wives and at least 67 children.

But on Wednesday, the name of another woman came up, and he had to clarify that she, too, was a wife, boosting the count to 22 wives.

In earlier testimony, Blackmore said children as young as 12 in his community were working on logging loaders and skidders, earning well below the minimum wage.

Blackmore said the boys from the community did all kinds of summer jobs for his company J.R. Blackmore and Sons Ltd., including rounding up cattle, bundling fence posts and working at the company's logging operation.

He said the children were kept away from anything dangerous, such as using a logging skidder on steep slopes. The skidder is a heavy tracker used to pull cut trees out of the forest in a process called skidding.

The parents of the children often designated where the children would go, Blackmore said.

"They were worried about risk, we all were."

He agreed that the company got the tax deduction it was entitled to for hiring the children, and they were issued T-4 slips for the money they earned, but he didn't know if they filed tax returns.

Blackmore couldn't recall how much the children — all boys —were paid, but agreed when asked by Burch that it was probably less than a couple of dollars an hour.

He said the children were issued cheques, and he would cash them, giving them money from a store operation that J.R. Blackmore also owned.

"I didn't have pockets full of cash," he replied, when Burch asked him to explain why he would cash the boys' cheques.

Every summer, about 30 to 40 boys would work at various operations of the company, Blackmore said, adding it was difficult to find something for all the boys to do.

"The mothers took charge of the girls. They wanted us to do something with the boys."

Blackmore said WorkSafeBC officials told the company in a meeting that anyone younger than 12 could not be put to work.

"We tried to honour it," he said.

Excommunication split community

In 2002, the Bountiful community split in two after then-FLDS leader in the U.S. Warren Jeffs excommunicated Blackmore.

He told the trial 10 of his wives left him after the division.

Blackmore testified there were more than 20 other men who lived on the Bountiful compound before 2002 and that they had more than one wife. The majority had two wives, but some had three, and two men had four wives.

Burch then went down a list asking Blackmore how he was related to each man, and he said that some were brothers and nephews and there was a father-in-law and a brother-in-law.

At least 14 of those men and their families left Blackmore's side of the compound after the division in the community in 2002.