B.C. attorney general confirms charges laid against top two polygamist leaders
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Two top leaders of the controversial polygamous sect in Bountiful, B.C., have been arrested and charged with practising polygamy.
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal confirmed that Winston Blackmore and James Oler were arrested Wednesday.
Oppal said Blackmore is alleged to be married to 20 women, while Oler is accused of committing polygamy by being married to two women.
“This has been a very complex issue,” he told The Canadian Press. “It’s been with us for well over 20 years. The problem has always been the defence of religion has always been raised.”
Oppal said some legal experts have believed that a charge for practising polygamy wouldn’t withstand a Charter of Rights challenge over the issue of freedom of religion.
Last June, Oppal appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of criminal abuse at Bountiful, saying renewed public concerns compelled him to act.
About 800 people live in the community in southeastern B.C., where members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practice multiple marriage.
Blackmore, who is the leader of one of two groups within the community, openly admits to having numerous wives and dozens of children but has said the community abhors sexual abuse of children.
However, Blackmore has refused in previous interviews to discuss allegations that teenaged girls in the community marry older men or that others are sent to polygamous groups in the United States.
Oler is the leader of the other group in the community, which has long been divided.
The issue of polygamy in British Columbia came up again last year after more than 450 children were apprehended by child-welfare authorities from a sister polygamous community in Texas.
At least one of the girls in that case was from Bountiful, refocusing the spotlight on a community that has existed in relative obscurity in B.C.’s Kootenays, not far from the U.S. border.
And polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, the sect’s prophet in the U.S., is behind bars south of the border.
He was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and faces trial in Arizona on other charges related to the marriages of members of sect there.
“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.”