Aug 18, 2014

Charges laid against Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore after judge rules Charter should not protect polygamists

National PostBrian Hutchinson
August 14, 2014

ANALYSISFor decades, polygamous sect leader Winston Blackmore has exercised power and control over some 500 souls from his stronghold in Bountiful, B.C. He is their chief, their decision-maker. He enjoys many women, having taken some two dozen wives in accordance with what he claims are sacred religious beliefs.

He seems to enjoy notoriety. He once proposed that he and his flock of “fundamentalist Mormon” followers receive star treatment on American reality TV.

But there have been consequences. Mr. Blackmore, 60, recently fought the taxman and lost. A Tax Court of Canada judge agreed last year with an earlier ruling, finding that he’d under-reported his private company’s income by $1.8-million over six years. The judge slapped him with $150,000 in penalties, and she dismissed claims that his community is a “religious communal congregation” and thus tax exempt.

Mr. Blackmore is now being sued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for alleged trademark violation. The church, which represents mainstream Mormons, wants nothing to do with Mr. Blackmore, Bountiful and its polygamous ways.

These are the least of his worries. Mr. Blackmore now faces criminal prosecution. It’s long overdue, according to his many critics.

On Wednesday, B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch (CJB) announced that, on recommendations from the RCMP and on the advice of a Special Prosecutor appointed by the province’s Attorney General, Mr. Blackmore and another man, James Oler, have each been charged with one count of polygamy.

Mr. Blackmore was first investigated by RCMP in 1990 and 1991, on suspicion of practising polygamy. He was not charged because, according to legal experts, Canada’s anti-polygamy laws were inconsistent with the Canadian Charter and its religious freedom guarantee. A prosecution would not likely succeed, the experts said then.

More police investigations were conducted. More charges were recommended, but nothing happened. The same argument always held sway; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects polygamists. As a result, Mr. Blackmore avoided prosecution for his alleged crimes.

In 2009, Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler, who represents a rival community at Bountiful, were arrested, again on accusations of polygamy. Once again, the matter never proceeded to trial.

But circumstances have changed. The RCMP have fresh evidence of criminal activity, says the CJB. According to its statement Wednesday, Mr. Blackmore allegedly “practised a form of polygamy, or practised a kind of conjugal union” with 24 women. Mr. Oler is alleged to have practised a form of polygamy with four.

In addition, Crown prosecutors now have at their disposal a lengthy and finely detailed analysis of Bountiful, its polygamous practice and the law. Written in 2011 by B.C.’s Chief Justice, Robert Bauman, at the end of a long constitutional reference case initiated by the province, the document is described as “the most comprehensive judicial record on the subject ever produced.”

Those are Chief Justice Bauman’s own words. But the assessment is fair.

He was asked to declare whether Canada’s longstanding but seldom-used anti-polygamy law is consistent with the freedoms guaranteed by the Charter. After hearing from dozens of expert witnesses and former sect members over five months, he described in his lengthy report what really goes on at Bountiful, and dismissed claims that the community — which remains divided by two competing factions, one controlled by Mr. Blackmore, the other represented by Mr. Oler — is free of abuse and harm.

Harm is what the Bountiful question is really all about, Chief Justice Bauman concluded. “Harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage.”

Specifically, he found that women in polygamous relationships “are at an elevated risk of physical and psychological harm. They face higher rates of domestic violence and abuse, including sexual abuse.”

Meanwhile children in polygamous families “face higher infant mortality. … They tend to suffer more emotional, behavioural and physical problems, and well as lower educational achievement than children in monogamous families.” Early marriage for girls, frequently to older men, is common, wrote the judge.

His conclusions weren’t based on cold academic research alone. Chief Justice Bauman heard from former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), represented at Bountiful by Mr. Oler, and by some of Mr. Blackmore’s former acolytes.

Witnesses included Ruth Lane, one of Mr. Blackmore’s former wives. She was a 20-year-old single mom when she married Mr. Blackmore in 1994, she testified. She took the initiative and asked to be his wife. His tenth, as it happened.

She described the circumstances around the marriage. “Crazy. Crazy. My parents were mad that I had asked for him. And he had married two sisters the week before, which I didn’t know when I asked for him. I probably still would have asked for him though. … He had a thing for sisters.”

Susie Barlow, a former member of the FLDS, described how she’d been “assigned to enter into a ‘spiritual marriage'” with her older cousin when she was 16 years old. “My husband, Leonard Barlow Sr., was 51,” she testified. “I became his second wife on December 21, 2001. That day was supposed to be the shortest day in the year, but it was the longest for me.”

Chief Justice Bauman listened, reflected, and then determined that any Charter breaches caused by Canada’s anti-polygamy law are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” and that the prohibition on polygamy “is consistent with, and further, Canada’s international human rights obligations. … In my view, the salutary effects of the prohibition far outweigh the deleterious.”

With that in its pocket, B.C.’s CJB could — and did — decide to proceed at long last with a criminal prosecution of Winston Blackmore, and his rival, James Oler.

In October, the two men are scheduled to appear in a provincial courtroom in Creston, B.C., near Bountiful.

Their trial will not begin for many more months. When it does, prosecutors might point to evidence that Mr. Blackmore gave at an unrelated civil trial in Salt Lake City earlier this year. Mr. Blackmore acknowledged to having wedded on different occasions three 15-year-old girls. “I never touched anyone before they were 16,” he testified.