7 Jan 2009

Polygamy charges in Bountiful

The Globe and Mail - Canada
January 7, 2009

by Robert Matas

VANCOUVER — Leaders of the two factions in the polygamous community of Bountiful have been charged under the Criminal Code with practising polygamy.

In a sensational turn in a 20-year-old debate over the issue of polygamy in Canada, police have charged Jim Oler and Winston Blackmore. Both men are believed to have more than one wife.

The two men were charged each with one count on Tuesday and have not yet appeared in court. Mr. Oler is charged with “practising polygamy” on Nov. 4, 2004. Mr. Blackmore is charged with “practising polygamy” on May 1, 2005, according to documents at the provincial courthouse in Creston.

The religious community has been the subject of several police probes since the late 1980s following allegations of incest, sexual abuse, fraud, and trafficking of teenage brides across the Canada-U.S. border. But police up to this point have refused to proceed with charges.

Winston Blackmore the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful speaks to a reporter in this April 20, 2008 file photo at Bountiful near Creston, B.C.

Winston Blackmore the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful speaks to a reporter in this April 20, 2008 file photo at Bountiful near Creston, B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

The RCMP would not confirm the arrests. However, the media were notified of a news conference later today for “an announcement concerning two members from the community of Bountiful.” Bountiful is the home of a religious group that practises polygamy as an act of faith in its religion.

Police declined to provide further information until the news conference. Attorney General Wally Oppal and members of the RCMP are expected to be at the news conference.

Mr. Blackmore was considered the bishop in Canada of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from 1984 until 2002, when he was replaced by Mr. Oler. He is reported to have more than 20 wives and dozens of children. In an exchange of e-mails with The Globe and Mail earlier this year, Mr. Blackmore said he had no legal wives but lots of family members.

Mr. Blackmore also said he acts in his capacity as a religious minister when called upon by others but he was neither a member of a FLDS congregation nor a leader of any religious community. He has previously said he was part of a sect called the United Order Effort, which he has described as the true Mormon church.

Mr. Oler, who has been more reluctant to speak with the media than Mr. Blackmore, is reported to have fewer wives.

Officials at the Mormon Hills School in the community, where Mr. Blackmore is the superintendent, said he was arrested Wednesday, Canadian Press reported.

Mr. Oppal has previously indicated he would like to see charges of polygamy laid against members of the community despite concerns raised by two government advisers about the difficulty of obtaining a conviction in the face of protections for religious freedom guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Vancouver lawyers Richard Peck and Len Doust in separate opinions advised the government to seek a court ruling on whether the law on polygamy conflicts with the Canadian Charter before charging anyone.

Undeterred, Mr. Oppal sought advice a third time. The opinion of the adviser, Vancouver lawyer Terry Robertson, has not yet been released although his review was to be completed last fall.

Last summer, Mr. Robertson told The Globe and Mail he intended to ask the RCMP to reopen its investigation into the polygamous community to find out whether men in authority fathered children with underage girls.

Polygamy is an indictable offence in the Criminal Code.

Bountiful is a community of more than 1,000 people in a rural area outside Creston, B.C., in southeastern B.C. a few kilometres north of the Canada/U.S. border.

The news conference comes two weeks after the release of a report on the unprecedented raid on April 3 on the central compound and headquarters for the religion, the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

Welfare authorities concluded that 12 of 439 children who were seized during the raid were underaged child brides. Seven of the girls, who were between the ages of 12 and 15, had one or more children.

An additional 262 children were considered to be neglected because parents did not remove them from situations that exposed them to sexual abuse, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A Texas grand jury has indicted 12 men on charges including sexual assault of a child, aggravated sexual assault, bigamy and conducting an illegal marriage, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The raid led to the largest child welfare apprehension in U.S. history.

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