Social Issues

Legal uncertainty protects sect leader with 20 wives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2008, 12:00am

Pressure grows on Canadian officials to shut commune

Winston Blackmore, who is believed to have 20 wives and at least 100 children, is the head of a religious sect in British Colombia. He believes polygamy will guarantee he and his family a place in heaven.

Polygamy is illegal in Canada, and although the law has not been enforced in more than 100 years, Mr Blackmore believes his religious right to practise polygamy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom provides him with immunity.

But local politicians are facing renewed pressure to take action against the commune named Bountiful near Creston, British Columbia, about eight hours east of Vancouver, with officials particularly concerned that young women are being forced to marry older men.

While Mr Blackmore is the high-profile polygamist leader in British Columbia, Jim Oler has set up a rival sect in the same area. Both men are believed to have about 700 followers.

The government has tried for years to come up with ways to shut down Mr Blackmore's community, an offshoot of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

Mr Blackmore has emerged to give statements in recent weeks, driven out of his usual seclusion by events in Texas where officials raided the FLDS Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado on April 3, where members of his sect lived.

Authorities took custody of 463 children from the ranch. It was later revealed more than half of the teenage girls were pregnant or had children.

Mr Blackmore has not disclosed the exact number of children and wives he has, saying only coyly he has enough and doesn't worry about other men's wives. 'We think we'll just mind our business. There's plenty of things for us to do to get ready for the farming and harvest season. That's what I'm going to be worried about.'

When Warren Jeffs, the sect leader of a polygamist group in Utah was arrested in 2006 and then convicted last year, attention focused again on the community in Bountiful.

British Columbia's attorney general Wally Oppal has taken a particular interest in the polygamist community, holding meetings with his counterparts in Utah.

'Over the years we've been given opinions by legal scholars and law professors that the offence of polygamy may contravene the Charter [of Rights and Freedom],' Mr Oppal said. 'We need to make sure we're following the correct course of action.'

In the past year, the province has asked two prominent lawyers to provide an opinion on whether the government could convict on charges of polygamy. Both lawyers returned with virtually the same opinion that the country's highest court needs to determine first whether practicing polygamy is a religious freedom.

Mr Oppal readily admits it would be easier to press criminal charges on allegations of sexual assault, but there has never been one complaint forwarded by anyone from Bountiful.

Officials trying to sort out underage pregnancies and marriages from the sect members from Texas have encountered a number of difficulties, including false names.

'Now that we have an idea of what's going on in Texas, the government in British Columbia has to act,' said Brenda Jensen, a former member of Bountiful. She was told at the age of 16 to marry a man in his 50s, but a year later, her parents took the family out of the FLDS.

'The whole world is watching what's going on and there's no reason why British Columbia can't be taking some action to shut down Bountiful.'

Daphne Bramham, a journalist who wrote The Secret Lives of Saints, detailing the rise of the community in Bountiful, said it was not only the politicians who were under pressure.

'There's also pressure on Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler because if there are Canadian kids in custody in Texas, they have to account for how those kids got there,' said Bramham.

She said the major concerns were that if British Columbia did not act, polygamists from Colorado City, the FLDS headquarters in Arizona and Hildale, Utah, the sister border town, would head to Canada.

'If [the attorney general] doesn't charge or move forward in some way, the polygamists will start to see Canada as a safe haven, as they thought Texas was a safe haven,' she said.