Earlier this year, we blogged about a trial at the British Columbia Supreme Court which thrust polygamy into headlines across the country once again.
At the centre of the trial was Winston Blackmore, Canada’s most infamous polygamist, and his former brother-in-law, James Oler. Both men were former bishops in the tiny, isolated community of Bountiful, B.C., where the community were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway sect of Mormonism which believes in plural marriage. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, based in Utah, officially renounced polygamy in the late 19th century, and disputes any connection to the fundamentalist sect’s form of Mormonism.
Blackmore, aged 60, was married to his first wife Jane Blackmore, but then married 24 additional women in “celestial marriages”. He has 145 children. Oler, aged 53, had five wives. In previous court proceedings, Blackmore had admitted (under oath) that three of his brides had been 16 and one had been 15 when they were married.
“The Law Seeks to Advance the Institution of Monogamous Marriage”
A previous decision by the B.C. Supreme Court over the constitutionality of Canada’s polygamy laws brought some clarity over the status of polygamy in Canada. Previously, a lack of clear legal guidance on plural marriage (which is prohibited under the Criminal Code) led to several failed attempts at prosecuting Blackmore.
In a legal process known as a “reference”, the B.C government eventually requested clarification from the court as to whether Canada’s law against polygamy is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a 335-page decision issued in 2011, Justice Bauman determined that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and did not violate freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Charter.
Justice Bauman stated:
In my view, the salutary effects of the prohibition far outweigh the deleterious…The law seeks to advance the institution of monogamous marriage, a fundamental value in Western society from the earliest of times. It seeks to protect against the many harms which are reasonably apprehended to arise out of the practice of polygamy.
Those harms include an elevated risk of physical and psychological harm for women in such relationships, physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women, and the expulsion of young men, known as “lost boys”, who have no women left to marry.
The Most Recent Trial
Over the course of this most recent 12-day trial, the court heard from dozens of witnesses, including Mormon experts, law enforcement officers who investigated the FLDS community, and Jane Blackmore, who left the community almost 15 years ago.
Evidence also included 700 records that had been seized from an FLDS compound in Texas as part of a cross-border investigation into the sect. The records outlined the practice of “celestial marriage”, which is a secretive, plural marriage that is not registered with any municipal or other governments. Records of all such marriages for FLDS members were kept in a vault in the Texas compound.
Lawyers for both men had argued that evidence seized by police from the compound, which included information about members who were involved in the sect across Canada and the U.S., was not credible. Oler’s lawyer specifically argued that important information about Oler was missing from the evidence, and also, that the Crown (i.e. prosecutors) had not proven that Oler had continuously practiced polygamy between 1993 and 2009.
However, the court found that the evidence, including FLDS marriage records, was ultimately reliable, and that the Crown had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that both men practiced marriage with more than one person at the same time and were therefore guilty of polygamy.
Under s. 293 of the Criminal Code, the maximum sentence for a conviction of polygamy is five years in prison. Both Blackmore and Oler remain out on bail. Sentencing is expected to begin next week.
What Does This Mean Moving Forward?
Blackmore was defiant following the court’s decision, telling the Canadian Press that he “certainly [doesn’t] plan on dropping [his] faith and running away”. He believes that the judge was “wrong” and plans on launching further court action.
Blackmore said that it is not religious persecution that bothers him, but rather the alleged political persecution, he noted that “twenty-seven years ago adultery was a criminal act. Twenty-seven years ago when they started with us same-sex marriage was criminal”. He hopes that his further court challenge will bring about change.
We will continue to follow developments in this perptually unfolding matter, and will provide updates as they become available.
In the meantime, if you have questions about marriage, separation, divorce, or any other family law related issues, contact Windsor family lawyer Jason P. Howie at 519-800-1039 or contact us online. Jason has been a fixture of the family law community of Windsor and the surrounding regions for more than 25 years, and can offer guidance to help you address your most challenging legal issues.