B.C. polygamists won't be charged with sexual assault

Elaine O’Connor, Vancouver Province

Published: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

VANCOUVER - No charges of sexual assault will be recommended against Bountiful's polygamist sect, following a review of allegations of sexual abuse by a special prosecutor.

But Attorney General Wally Oppal may now decide to let the courts rule on the constitutionality of the law against polygamy, in the wake of lawyer Richard Peck's review.

Oppal asked Peck to review the file over concerns that charges of sexual abuse might fail a constitutional challenge by infringing on the Charter right to religious freedom.

B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal may decide to have the courts to rule on the constitutionality of polygamy.

Darren Stone/CanWest News Service
Peck suggested the government seek clarification on the issue with a reference question to the courts.

"We are in the process now of examining Mr. Peck's opinion and we hope to have a final decision rendered shortly," Oppal said Wednesday.

It's a difficult decision. If the law prohibiting polygamy were struck down, it could open the doors for a variety of other offences committed in the name of religion.

Oppal does not believe Canadians would stand for that.

"There have been some opinions rendered by a number of people that the freedom of religion would trump any sections in the Criminal Code. I personally disagree with that," Oppal said. 

 "My disagreement is based on the fact that I don't think Canadians would condone polygamy. I think that Canadians would find it abhorrent and contrary to equal treatment for women."

RCMP recommended charges to the Crown in 2006, after an investigation into allegations that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the southeast B.C. community were forcing underage women into arranged marriages and motherhood with much older men.

The religious sect decrees men must marry multiple wives to get into heaven. Winston Blackmore, one of the B.C. leaders, has at least 26 wives and 100 children.

Four senior Crown lawyers reviewed the RCMP report, concluding that charges should not be laid because there was little likelihood of conviction: few girls would testify against their husbands.

Polygamy has been illegal in Canada since the country's first Criminal Code in 1892. But cases are rarely prosecuted.

 "The legality of polygamy in Canada has for too long been characterized by uncertainty. The integrity of the legal system suffers from such an impasse, and an authoritative statement from the courts is necessary in order to resolve it," Peck wrote in his review.

 "Polygamy is the underlying phenomenon from which all the other alleged harms flow, and the public interest would best be served by addressing it directly."

NDP MLA and attorney general critic Leonard Krog said such action should have been taken long ago.

 "There had been plenty of talk about this issue, and it's time for action. It is absolutely unacceptable for this situation to continue," Krog said in a release.

"British Columbians do not believe that these marriages are truly consensual, and they want something done to protect children in Bountiful from sexual exploitation."

Jancis Andrews, a Sechelt anti-polygamy activist, was upset by the lack of charges, but cheered by the prospect of a court ruling.

"We have been howling for this. This has to be done because this drift can not be allowed to continue," said Andrews, who has been lobbying the government to crack down on Bountiful since 2002.

"There are so many research papers now that say polygamy harms women's equality rights and also harms their children."

Nancy Mereska, an Alberta woman who runs Stop Polygamy in Canada, said she was frustrated by the constant delay of action.

"I'm not very happy. If they had the power to do this reference appeal, why didn't (former B.C. AG) Geoff Plante do this ages ago? They are passing the polygamy buck once again to some other authority to make a decision," said Mereska, a former Mormon herself.