The Attorney-General of British Columbia should stop wasting time and start prosecuting individuals in the fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful, a former member of the polygamous sect said yesterday.
Debbie Palmer, who was married off at the age of 15 to a 55-year-old man, said she does not understand why the province keeps studying the constitutionality of the federal law that forbids polygamy rather than testing it by enforcement.
Vancouver lawyer Leonard Doust issued a report this week that said the best way to proceed was to refer section 293 of the Criminal Code to the courts to test its constitutionality, rather than prosecute individuals first.
Mr. Doust had been asked by B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal to recommend a course of action. However, last August, Vancouver lawyer Richard Peck, also commissioned by Mr. Oppal, came to the same conclusion.
When Mr. Oppal was asked by The Vancouver Sun for his reaction to Mr. Doust’s report, he said, “It’s no secret I favoured a more aggressive approach to this.”
Ms. Palmer said if that is the case, she does not understand why Mr. Oppal just does not take action.
“All the anti-polygamists were feeling Wally Oppal was our last hope. But I don’t think he is any more determined to sort out the issue than any other attorney-general has been. He is definitely stalling,” said Ms. Palmer, who now lives in Prince Albert, Sask.
“Having been a child on the inside, I know the uncertainty has a really bad effect on everybody: on the people concerned about the issue and the women and children inside the community who don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
Mr. Oppal could not be reached for comment but is reported to have said he would make a decision “within the next week or so.”
Ms. Palmer was taken to Bountiful in 1957, when she was two years old, by her father. By 15 she was married to a 55-year-old man as his fifth wife.
After he died in 1974, she “was reassigned to another man who had five wives and then went through some pretty horrifying abuses with that man who was incredibly abusive to his wives and children. In 1979, I was given a release and assigned to a third man.”
She said that in 1988 she decided she had to get out to keep her eight children safe.
Ms. Palmer said she got into advocacy work because she realized that she had left behind 47 brothers and sisters, along with many nieces, nephews and stepchildren, who had no voice.
Bountiful is estimated to have 1,500 residents who practise polygamy. The mainstream Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, condemns polygamy.
Don Stuart, a professor of law at Queen’s University, said he was puzzled by what was going on in British Columbia.
“I’m not quite sure why it’s necessary to refer a normal law enforcement discretion to a committee,” Prof. Stuart said.
“Prosecutors are not supposed to proceed if there’s no reasonable prospect of success. If there’s an evidentiary problem of getting the proper complainant, you can understand why they’re not proceeding,” Prof. Stuart said. “But assuming there’s a possibility of getting the evidence, I would have thought that referring the matter to a court for a constitutional reference seems rather odd, especially if the likelihood here is that people are being hurt.”
One concern is that the law would fail a challenge because it could be seen as violating freedom of religion.
Nicholas Bala, who is also a law professor at Queen’s University, and who has written extensively about polygamy, said the religious freedom argument has failed in the United States, India and Europe.
He said a court in Canada would look at whether the harm being done to women and children would outweigh any perceived infringement on religious practice.
“The reality of polygamy in fundamentalist Mormon communities is there are significant concerns about exploitation of younger women and girls being forced into those relations, and it’s very hard for them to leave.”
He said there could be reluctance to prosecute because of the difficulty of getting anyone to testify. Women may be afraid to come forward out of fear they will be prosecuted, too.
And in some cases they may simply not want to testify against the father of their children or they may even be afraid of retribution in the community.
“In my view, something should be done quickly,” he said. “We have many laws that people are saying are unconstitutional, and the typical practice is to lay the charges and let the courts decide and have the constitutionality resolved in the context of the specific case.”
• Original title: Ex-sect member urges charges
“If B.C. charges either or both of Bountiful’s leaders, Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, with the criminal offence of practising polygamy and loses, it opens the door for the free practise of plural marriage in the guise of religion. If B.C. loses, it could even open the door to other repugnant practices, such as female genital mutilation. Certainly, Muslim groups are anxiously watching to see what happens.”