British Columbia

B.C. religious leaders charged with polygamy

Two rival leaders of a religious community in Bountiful, B.C., have been released Wednesday night after being charged with practising polygamy.
Winston Blackmore, a religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful, in the B.C. Interior, shares a laugh with six of his daughters and some of his grandchildren in April last year. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Two rival leaders of a religious community in Bountiful, B.C., were released from custody Wednesday night after being charged with practising polygamy.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were charged with one count each on Tuesday of breaching Section 293 of the Criminal Code — which bans polygamy — by entering into a conjugal relationship with more than one individual at a time.

The charges against Blackmore, 52, are linked to his alleged marriages to 19 women, dating back to May 2005. The charges against Oler, 44, are linked to his marriages to two women, dating back to November 2004.

Both men have been released on the following conditions:

  • To remain within British Columbia.
  • To surrender their passports to police.
  • To report to the RCMP detachment in Creston, B.C., twice monthly.
  • To abstain from entering into or performing any "celestial" marriages, a kind of Mormon marriage.

They are scheduled to appear in provincial court in Creston on Jan. 21.

B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal said Wednesday the arrests were the culmination of an intensive, seven-month assessment by special prosecutor Terrence Robertson.

"I am pleased a prosecution will be proceeding, as it will provide legal clarity as to the constitutionality of Section 293 of the Criminal Code," Oppal said.

Oppal said it took a long time to lay charges because "it's been extremely difficult to get witnesses to come forward and testify."

Past prosecutors reluctant to lay charges

The RCMP investigation into allegations of polygamy in the isolated, rural community in southeastern B.C. began in 2005 and included interviews with 90 people in B.C., Utah, Idaho and Nevada.

B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal says it has been extremely difficult to get witnesses to come forward and testify against the two men. ((CBC))

But following the conclusion of the investigation, B.C.'s Crown prosecutors remained reluctant to lay polygamy charges for fear they would be declared unconstitutional on the basis of religious freedom.

Oppal then appointed special prosecutors Richard Peck and later Len Doust, who both recommended the government get a court ruling on the constitutionality of Canada's polygamy laws before attempting to press charges against men in the polygamous community.

In his statement on Wednesday, Oppal was keen to point out the new charges would be pursued by Robertson, not the Crown prosecutor's office.

"It is critical to stress that this prosecution is independent of the criminal justice branch and the government of British Columbia. Mr. Robertson, as an independent special prosecutor, will have sole charge of pursuing the prosecution through B.C.'s courts and any subsequent appeals," Oppal said.

Too late

Brenda Jensen, a cousin of Blackmore, said Wednesday the provincial government should have taken action sooner.

"There has been 30 and 40 little children married off. Their lives have been ruined. These men as leaders are responsible for this," said Jensen, who was raised in Bountiful but left the polygamist life when she was 16 to avoid being married off to an older man.

Nancy Mereska, a spokeswoman for the Stop Polygamy in Canada campaign, said the charges have been a long time coming.

"It's just been a travesty of all types of groups who have pleaded with the B.C. government for so long to lay charges," Mereska said.

"I feel very, very sure that the process will go through the court and that the Supreme Court of Canada will uphold the anti-polygamy laws in Canada."

Community divided by leaders

Blackmore, the one-time bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the rural community in B.C.'s Southern Interior, is rumoured to have fathered about 80 children by his 26 wives, some as young as 15 at the time of their marriage.

In 2003, Blackmore and about 1,000 other members of the Bountiful community split from the church after rejecting Warren Jeffs, the church's U.S.-based leader, as a prophet. Jeffs then appointed Oler as his leader in the community.

In September 2007, a jury in St. George, Utah, convicted Jeffs of being an accomplice to rape for performing a wedding between a 19-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl.

Corrections

  • Police and prosecutors allege Winston Blackmore has 19 wives, not 20 as originally reported.
    Feb 23, 2009 11:05 PM PT

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