Polygamy charges in Bountiful


Globe and Mail Update and The Canadian Press

Winston Blackmore the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful speaks to a reporter in this April 20, 2008 file photo at Bountiful near Creston, B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)


January 7, 2009 at 4:15 PM EST

VANCOUVER — Leaders of the two factions in the polygamous community of Bountiful have been charged under the Criminal Code with practising polygamy.

In a sensational turn in a 20-year-old debate over the issue of polygamy in Canada, police have charged Jim Oler and Winston Blackmore.

The two men were charged each with one count on Tuesday and have not yet appeared in court. Mr. Oler is charged with “practising polygamy” with two women. Mr. Blackmore's charge relates to 20 women.

The religious community has been the subject of several police probes since the late 1980s following allegations of incest, sexual abuse, fraud, and trafficking of teenage brides across the Canada-U.S. border. But police up to this point have refused to proceed with charges.

“This has been a very complex issue,” said B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal. “It's been with us for well over 20 years. The problem has always been the defence of religion has always been raised.”

Mr. Oppal said some legal experts have believed that the charge wouldn't withstand a Charter of Rights challenge over the issue of freedom of religion.

“I've always disagreed with that,” he said. "Our belief is that it is a valid section [of the Criminal Code]."

"Hopefully it won't be a long trial," Mr. Oppal added, saying it was premature to say when a trial may take place.

The two Bountiful leaders are expected to be released from custody today on conditions that include they not perform marriages.

RCMP Sgt. Tim Shields said he's not aware any of the wives were under 18.

Mr. Blackmore was considered the bishop in Canada of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from 1984 until 2002, when he was replaced by Mr. Oler. He is reported to have more than 20 wives and dozens of children. In an exchange of e-mails with The Globe and Mail earlier this year, Mr. Blackmore said he had no legal wives but lots of family members.

Mr. Blackmore also said he acts in his capacity as a religious minister when called upon by others but he was neither a member of a FLDS congregation nor a leader of any religious community. He has previously said he was part of a sect called the United Order Effort, which he has described as the true Mormon church.

Mr. Oler, who has been more reluctant to speak with the media than Mr. Blackmore, is reported to have fewer wives.

Mr. Oppal had previously indicated he would like to see charges of polygamy laid against members of the community despite concerns raised by two government advisers about the difficulty of obtaining a conviction in the face of protections for religious freedom guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Vancouver lawyers Richard Peck and Len Doust in separate opinions advised the government to seek a court ruling on whether the law on polygamy conflicts with the Canadian Charter before charging anyone.

Undeterred, Mr. Oppal sought advice a third time. The opinion of the adviser, Vancouver lawyer Terry Robertson, has not yet been released although his review was to be completed last fall.

Last summer, Mr. Robertson told The Globe and Mail he intended to ask the RCMP to reopen its investigation into the polygamous community to find out whether men in authority fathered children with underage girls.

Polygamy is an indictable offence in the Criminal Code.

"Is the spirit of the law being violated and we think it is. If some court decides otherwise, we will obviously have to live with that," Mr. Oppal said when asked about the risk of losing court.

Bountiful is a community of more than 1,000 people in a rural area outside Creston, B.C., in southeastern B.C. a few kilometres north of the Canada/U.S. border.

The news conference comes two weeks after the release of a report on the unprecedented raid on April 3 on the central compound and headquarters for the religion, the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

Welfare authorities concluded that 12 of 439 children who were seized during the raid were underaged child brides. Seven of the girls, who were between the ages of 12 and 15, had one or more children.

An additional 262 children were considered to be neglected because parents did not remove them from situations that exposed them to sexual abuse, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A Texas grand jury has indicted 12 men on charges including sexual assault of a child, aggravated sexual assault, bigamy and conducting an illegal marriage, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The raid led to the largest child welfare apprehension in U.S. history.