B.C. polygamist leaders charged in case that will test ban on multiple marriage
VANCOUVER, B.C. – After decades of controversy and allegations, RCMP swept into the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C., on Wednesday and arrested two sect leaders, including one who had bragged of multiple wives and dozens of children and all but dared police to stop him.
Winston Blackmore and James Oler – leaders of separate, divided factions in the community of about 1,000 people – were each charged with a single count of practising polygamy.
Blackmore is accused of having 20 wives and Oler two, and police say some of their wives were as young as 15 years old when they were married.
The arrest brought a dramatic end to almost 20 years of investigations and scrutiny, and the start of a criminal case that will test the limits of Canada’s prohibition of polygamy.
“We’ve always felt that there has been exploitation,” Attorney General Wally Oppal said Wednesday at a news conference in Vancouver.
“The question is whether under our laws we were in a position to proceed, and we have concluded that we are.”
Blackmore and Oler were released from custody in Cranbrook, B.C. on Wednesday under a number of conditions.
Both men must abstain from entering into or performing any celestial marriages.
They must also remain within B.C., surrender their passports to police, and report to the RCMP detachment in Creston twice a month.
Blackmore and Oler are scheduled to appear in provincial court in Creston on Jan. 21.
The RCMP had also recommended charges of sexual exploitation against the pair, but Oppal said because the age of consent was 14 years old until it was raised to 16 last year, prosecutors didn’t believe they could win a conviction.
The self-named community in the Creston Valley, not far from the U.S. border in southeastern B.C., is made up of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church.
The mainstream church renounced the polygamy in 1890 but the fundamentalist sects have continued the practice, which they claim brings glorification in Heaven.
Nancy Mereska, whose Stop Polygamy campaign has long called for charges against Bountiful’s leaders, said the community shouldn’t be protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Polygamy is not a religious right; polygamy is a crime,” said Mereska, who lives in Two Hills, Alta.
“I believe that Canada has all the ammunition it needs to take this process all the way up to the Supreme Court and I believe that the Supreme Court of Canada will uphold the laws against polygamy.”
Alison Brewin, executive director of West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, made up of lawyers and legal experts, said the lack of action in Bountiful has undermined women’s rights and set young women and girls up for exploitation.
“In the case of Bountiful, these vulnerabilities are reinforced by the closed nature of the community, including the control of information,” Brewin said in a statement.
Reaction is mixed to news of charges
Some anti-polygamists were jubilant at the charges laid yesterday but others were bitterly disappointed that B.C. officials chose not to proceed with sexual exploitation charges against Bountiful leaders.
“Now that the powers that be have taken the first step, I know that there will be those affected by polygamy who will come out of the woodwork,” said Nancy Mereska, co-ordinator of Stop Polygamy in Canada.
“It will be their voices that will help eradicate the practice of polygamy, not ours. What a victory!” Debbie Palmer, a former Bountiful resident related to both Winston Blackmore and James Oler, who each now face charges of practising polygamy, said Attorney-General Wally Oppal should be applauded but she feels the prosecution would have had a greater chance of success with charges of sexual exploitation.
Palmer, who is Blackmore’s stepmother, said Blackmore has openly boasted about marrying women as young as 15.
“I know the RCMP gave Crown counsel enough information and witnesses to lay sexual abuse charges, and that police also had access to birth records that showed several of the women were 15 or younger when they married Blackmore,” said Palmer.
Audrey Vance, a former Creston School Board member who has been outspoken in her opposition to the B.C. taxpayers’ ongoing funding of Bountiful schools, agreed that “the RCMP wanted sexual-abuse charges to proceed.
“Both Blackmore and Oler are men who are in a position of trust and authority in the Bountiful community and that means the age of consent is 18,” said Vance.
She added that young women who marry and have children with much older men in Bountiful “are really being subjected to sexual exploitation.” Vance said that Blackmore, who has admitted to having at least 26 wives, “has no more than 17 wives now” because some women have left the sect. “Unfortunately, most are girls from Colorado City [another polygamist sect in Arizona] and they have no legal status in Canada, so they have to remain silent.” Palmer, who helped raise her half-brother James Oler, said he has become a “heartless and cruel man who has disowned his own sons and split up families.” The 2002 splinter in the Bountiful sect left Blackmore in charge of one faction and Oler another, with both claiming property, businesses and schools.
Palmer noted that Oler has become “one of the four or five most powerful men” among breakaway Mormon supporters of polygamy, and is a loyal follower of top U.S. polygamist Warren Jeffs, who is in jail on sex charges.
Palmer, now 53, was only 15 when her father gave her to a 57-year-old man. She ran away with her eight children after 34 years in the commune and has since become an outspoken activist and author.
Read the indictments
Ten people who can help make the case against polygamy The Province, Jan. 7, 2009
Attorney General Wally Oppal’s statement on the Bountiful case, The Province, Jan. 7, 2009
The state of polygamy in Canada
OTTAWA — Some facts about polygamy in Canada:
THE STATE OF CANADA’S POLYGAMY BAN: While polygamy is illegal in Canada and punishable by up to five years in prison, the practice had until Wednesday flourished unchecked in Bountiful, B.C., the home of a colony of adherents to a fundamentalist Mormon sect that teaches men must have at least three wives to achieve eternal salvation.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS: Section 293 of the Criminal Code outlaws “any form of polygamy” or “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage.” The ban, contained in Canada’s first Criminal Code in 1892, was designed specifically to combat polygamy among Mormons migrating to Canada.
THE CHARTER CONCERN: The federal Justice Department has repeatedly insisted that the law is sound, but several legal opinions in recent years have stated the polygamy ban wouldn’t withstand a constitutional challenge to the religious freedom guarantees in the Charter of Rights. Others counter that protecting women and children from the harm done by polygamy trumps the need to uphold religious freedom.
POLYGAMY PRACTITIONERS IN CANADA: There are no statistics on polygamist marriages in Canada. While Bountiful is the most public example, polygamy is also secretly practised by an unknown number of Muslims.
PROSECUTING POLYGAMY: The charges laid Wednesday are believed to be the first polygamy prosecutions in Canada in 72 years. In 1937, an Ontario man was charged with polygamy for committing adultery, but he won his case.
John Krakauer, Under The Banner of Heaven, Doubleday (July 15, 2003), pages 5, 6.