The Current

Freedom to practice polygamy in Canada on trial in small B.C. community

Is the practice of polygamy protected by the Charter's guarantee of religious freedom? A trial in Cranbrook, B.C. is testing this question.
Winston Blackmore, the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful located near Creston, B.C., with six of his daughters and some of his grandchildren in 2008. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

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It's a legal battle that's been brewing in Canada since the early '90s involving two men — Winston Blackmore accused of having 24 wives and James Oler accused of having four.

Both men are currently on trial in a small courtroom in Cranbrook, B.C.: each charged with one count of polygamy.     

Vancouver Sun reporter Daphne Bramham who has been covering the story tells The Current's Friday host why this trial is so significant.

"This is a community that has been practicing polygamy since the mid 1940s. The question in Canada is whether or not the polygamy law really was ever going to be enforceable," Bramham says.
James Oler, from Cranbrook, B.C., is on trial accused of having four wives. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

"In 2011 the chief justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that in fact the polygamy law was valid and that the harms of polygamy overrode the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom."

Bramham suggests Blackmore has more than 24 wives but that is the number listed on the indictment. The youngest wife was married at 15-years-old.

"One of the problems in the case of Mr. Blackmore is that when he was married …  the law in Canada was that the age of sexual consent was 14. So it's very difficult to charge them with sexual exploitation," Bramham explains.

The reason this case is important, according to Bramham has a lot to do with Blackmore himself.

"He's probably Canada's best known polygamist. A number of years ago when Larry King was still on CNN, he was on CNN with Larry King talking about wives and they had a big chuckle about how many wives they each had."

"So it's because of Mr. Blackmore that all of this attention is focused this week."

Listen to the full conversation the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Vancouver network producer Anne Penman.