May 14, 2018

Daphne Bramham: A call for an amnesty on future prosecutions as two polygamists prepare for sentencing

Gail Blackmore (right) leaves court during a lunch break in her sentencing hearing. She was convicted of taking a 13-year-old girl into the United States to marry the now-imprisoned leader of a religious sect that practices plural marriage.
Vancouver Sun
May 13, 2018

As two convicted polygamists — 61-year-old Winston Blackmore and James Oler, 53 — prepare for their sentencing hearing Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court in Cranbrook, there are growing concerns within the fundamentalist Mormon community that more people — both men and women — may be charged.

That fear is keeping some from fleeing the religious community of Bountiful in southeastern B.C. and from seeking help to make that transition, say several women who have left, according to a group called SafetyNet in the Kootenays.

Formed by women who have left the Bountiful community, the group is lobbying governments to provide more and better services to those who leave, including education, housing, legal assistance in gaining access to their children, and help in obtaining permanent residency for mothers who came here illegally from the United States.

They are also urging the federal and provincial government to declare an amnesty from prosecution for anyone who leaves.

Currently, about six people a year leave Bountiful and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose prophet, Warren Jeffs, continues to predict the end of the world and has ordered his followers not to have sex within marriage or even marry as long as he is in a Texas jail where he is serving sentence of life plus 25 years for sexually abusing under-aged girls, according to Esther Palmer.

She is one of SafetyNet’s founders. Palmer was deemed “unworthy” and asked to leave in 2011. One of 46 children and a mother of nine, Palmer was not only forced to leave behind several children as well many other family members, they are forbidden to speak to her because she is an apostate.

As difficult as it was to be cut off from family and lifelong friends, Palmer had the unique advantage of having an education and a profession. Most of her siblings and children have been denied that.

What they were taught was to fear the government, fear the police, and expect at any moment that authorities would come knocking to arrest fathers and separate mothers from their children.

That has never happened in Canada. But it did happen at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Tex. in 2014, and in Short Creek, Ariz. in 1953.

Even though this hasn’t been the route that Canada has taken, Palmer says that fear of reprisals remains a barrier to anyone thinking of leaving, especially women and children whose husbands and fathers may still have multiple wives.

In Canada, Blackmore and Oler were the first men in modern history to have been charged with the offence of polygamy, a law which dates back to the 1890s. And even those charges were nearly two decades in the making.

In the 1990s, Blackmore and Oler’s father, Dalmon, were investigated and RCMP recommended polygamy charges, but the attorney-general’s ministry refused to prosecute, saying that the polygamy law may be unconstitutional.

More than a decade later, Blackmore and James Oler were charged with one count each of polygamy. Those 2009 charges were stayed after a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled that the special prosecutor who approved the charges had been improperly appointed.

It was only after B.C. and Canada got a ruling from the B.C. Supreme Court in 2011 that the RCMP was ordered to reopen its Bountiful investigations.

Blackmore and Oler were charged in August 2014 with one count each of polygamy.

There were 24 women listed on Blackmore’s indictment. Four were listed on Oler’s, but a fifth was added during the trial.

Oler was also charged with the unlawful removal of a child for illegal purposes along with Winston’s older brother, Brandon James Blackmore, and one of Brandon’s wives, Emily Ruth Gail Blackmore. Oler was acquitted, but the Crown is appealing. The Blackmores were found guilty. Brandon is serving his one-year jail term, while Gail is out pending her appeal, which will be heard along with Oler’s on June 20 and 21.

Gail Blackmore’s conviction has heightened anxiety among FLDS women since she is the first woman ever arrested on polygamy-related charges.

In the past, police and prosecutors have regarded women as victims. Certainly, the religion’s teachings leave little room for women and girls to make their own decisions. As Esther Palmer said when she testified against her brother, James Oler, at the removal trial, unquestioning obedience to husbands, fathers, church leaders and the prophet is the primary lesson for girls.

Two NDP MPs — Murray Rankin and Wayne Stetski, whose riding includes Bountiful — plan to raise the issue of an amnesty both in meetings with B.C. Attorney-General David Eby and the parliamentary committee that is debating Bill C-75, which amends the Criminal Code including the sections on polygamy, forced marriage, under-age marriage and “pretending to solemnize a marriage.”

If approved, all of those sections would continue to be considered as indictable offences with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison. But they would also allow for summary convictions, which have maximum of only six months in jail and/or a fine of not more than $5,000.

While those amendments might provide some comfort to polygamists and their families — both those leaving and remaining — it may prove anathema to many British Columbians who have fought for years to try to protect Bountiful’s women and children from polygamy’s harms.

Twitter: @daphnebramham

No comments: