British Columbia pressed to crack down on polygamists

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Vancouver — Life would be much easier for British Columbia’s Attorney General Wally Oppal if a call came in to authorities just like the one allegedly made by a teenage bride in the polygamous community in Texas.

Under mounting pressure for the government to take action on the polygamous marriages in the commune of Bountiful in B.C.’s interior, Oppal says there is nothing he can do until a complaint has been filed.

The government has even sought out potential complainants, sending in officials to interview and talk to women, children and men in Bountiful. Despite the overtures, not one complaint has emerged from the community.

Ever since Texas officials raided the Eldorado compound on April 3 and removed 437 children from their families, who were all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect, B.C.’s government has been urged to take action in its own backyard.

For years, Bountiful, the polygamous community on the outskirts of the town of Creston, has escaped prosecution even though polygamy is illegal. The head of one of the polygamous communes believes religious rights protect them.

For the moment, the B.C. government is at a stalemate.

“There’s been no shortage of advice, gratuitous advice, from across the country, with law professors writing in and other people asking why we haven’t gone ahead,” said Oppal. “There’s a small matter of witnesses. There are none.”

The government asked a special prosecutor to prepare a report, which arrived four days after the Texas raid and recommended the province’s top court rule on Canada’s polygamy laws.

The special prosecutor, Len Doust, one of Vancouver’s top criminal lawyers, said the court of appeal needs to decide whether religious rights claims are constitutionally valid.

Last year, another special prosecutor gave the province the same advice – all of which is frustrating to Oppal, who would prefer to move more aggressively.

But Winston Blackmore, the leader of one of two polygamous communes in B.C., says the attorney general should heed the advice of the lawyers he appointed.

“You get good attorneys and follow their advice,” said Blackmore this week. “He’s under pressure, but you know, this is not going to be what I wake up in the morning tomorrow worrying about.”

Blackmore said it’s shameful that Texas officials moved in because of one alleged complaint from a 16-year-old girl. The complainant hasn’t been located.

While some members in Texas may have ties to the polygamous community in B.C., so far no definitive links have been made.

Still, the federal government confirmed yesterday that at least one Canadian citizen was living on the Texas ranch raided by American authorities.

“Contact has been made with the lawyer representing the Canadian and assistance is being provided,” a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

A former follower of the fundamentalist church says polygamists from the Texas sect are related to people in Bountiful.

Brenda Jensen, who now lives in Colorado City, Ariz., but was born in Bountiful and has relatives still living there, said the church is not a religion, but a cult.

“When men are having so many children they don’t know their names and they bleed a nation and community dry, that shouldn’t be happening. There’s no free choice for the women,” said Jensen, who left 40 years ago but has relatives in both the Texas and B.C. sects.

Many of the wives in polygamous marriages are able to collect welfare for being a single mother, according to Jensen, because the government doesn’t recognize their marriages. Jensen was assigned at 16 to marry a man in his 50s, but a year later, her parents took their children and left the sect.

Bountiful remains the largest colony of polygamists outside the U.S. towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah.

During the rape trial of American sect leader Warren Jeffs last fall, witnesses testified that there were frequent exchanges of people, especially young women, among the different communities.

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Canadian Press, via the Toronto Star, Canada
Apr. 26, 2008

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This post was last updated: Dec. 16, 2016