21 Jan 2009

Behind today's court appearance of two Bountiful leaders lie tales of discord

The Vancouver Sun - January 21, 2009

A community divided

by Daphne Bramham | Sun reporter

The practice of polygamy sets neighbour against neighbour, parent against child, politician against politician and even some husbands against wives in this southeastern B.C. town.

It's not that townsfolk here are polygamists. But Creston's proximity to the fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful, where some men unabashedly have more than one wife, makes it a more frequent topic than most would like.

Today, the spotlight will be on it again.

Two of the Bountiful's leaders will be in court for the first time since having been charged earlier this month with practising polygamy, a criminal offence that carries a penalty of up to five years in jail.

Winston Blackmore, 52, is charged with having had conjugal relations with 19 women. James Oler, 44, is charged with having two "wives."

Both have polygamy as a tenet of their beliefs and family trees so intertwined that you need a flow chart. But the enmity between the two and their followers is even greater than the divide in town.

Nothing more starkly illustrates the town's and maybe even the country's split over polygamy than Blackmore's defence team. It includes Blair Suffredine, the former Liberal MLA for Nelson-Creston, who during his single term had several meetings with local activists who urged him to do something about Bountiful.

"It's an interesting complication," Suffredine said Tuesday. "But it's not a conflict of interest. My time as an MLA gave me a good opportunity to see both sides of the issue."

After meeting with constituents who complained about Bountiful, Suffredine says he met with Blackmore, who responded "in a very positive way."

But news that the former MLA was working for Blackmore shocked and infuriated Linda Price and Audrey Vance, co-chairs of a local group called Altering Destiny Through Education.

They've spent the last five years lobbying politicians, including Suffredine, to tighten the rules for two taxpayer-supported schools at Bountiful, investigate allegations of child brides, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and polygamy and prosecute the leaders.

"I feel betrayed," Price said Tuesday. "He must have been slapping Winston's back or Winston was slapping his back and we didn't realize it."

They recalled meetings with Suffredine and how he had told them that he thought prosecuting polygamists was a waste of money because the polygamy law was unconstitutional.

Vance says it helps explain why it has taken so long for charges to be laid.

"Too many of the people in this community were good friends of Winston Blackmore," Vance said.

But Price says, it's an indication of how opinion divides here. "I think quite often it's men against women . . . Women realize what's going on and men say 'Leave them alone, they're nice hard-working people, leave them alone.'"

Acting mayor Wesly Graham calls the people from Bountiful "good neighbours. We have good relations. We interact with them in town."

But when it comes to the question of polygamy, he admits it is such an explosive topic that the town council is trying to stay neutral.

Its official position is that the mayor and councillors believe it will be a landmark case on the issue of religious freedom and that they hope that the justice system will bring some clarity to the law.

Neutrality is a big change. For years, the town council adopted the live-and-let-live view. It was only a few years ago after more reports of underage girls becoming plural wives to older men, that former mayor Joe Snopek backed calls for an investigation and even prosecution.

But John Kettle, the local representative on the regional district and the chairman of the hospital board, supported Suffredine financially and remains an outspoken defender of Blackmore's right to practise polygamy as part of his religion.

That doesn't reflect the views of a cluster of residents outside the Creston movie theatre Monday night. They questioned whether the equality rights of women and children are being upheld in Bountiful.

They raised concerns that close to $1 million worth of B.C. tax dollars go into the schools and yet few from Bountiful ever graduate from high school.

They wanted to know why Canada's anti-polygamy law isn't being upheld and why some legal experts are suggesting that there should be different laws for different groups in Canada.

They had just watched Bill Maher's Religulous. The timing of the one-night run of the comic-documentary questioning all beliefs and faiths was serendipitous, but the approaching Blackmore-Oler court appearance might have helped account for the full house and some of the big laughs.

As divided as Creston may be, it is nothing compared to Bountiful.

Until 2002, Blackmore was the bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Oler replaced him after Blackmore left the group, fed up with the increasingly draconian diktats and apocalyptic revelations coming from the FLDS prophet.

Blackmore was subsequently excommunicated and took about half of Bountiful's 1,000 residents with him. Since then, FLDS followers have shunned Blackmore and his followers, warned that even talking to them could put their own salvation at risk.

All of which makes any kind of joint defence highly unlikely.

In fact, with ongoing and impending litigation facing jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and leaders in two states, and trials set to begin soon for nine other church leaders in Texas, Oler and the FLDS might be quite content to let Blackmore lead an expensive constitutional battle, chiming in only when it suits their interests.

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