VANCOUVER — The leader of a Mormon breakaway sect in southeastern British Columbia has lost a bid to derail the province’s recurrent attempts to convict him of polygamy.
This is the latest development in a decades-long narrative of investigations and failed efforts at prosecution connected to the isolated community of Bountiful, B.C., which has become synonymous with the practice of polygamy in Canada.
On Thursday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin Cullen dismissed a petition from Winston Blackmore to have this latest charge quashed.
Blackmore is formally accused of having 24 marriages, though the court heard after that indictment was filed against him that he married 25 women between 1975 and 2001.
In a petition to the court earlier this month, Blackmore’s lawyer Joe Arvay argued that the province acted inappropriately by appointing a series of special prosecutors beginning in 2007 until finding one who would recommend legal action against the fundamentalist leader.
Arvay had successfully used the same argument to convince the court to dismiss the province’s previous attempt at prosecuting Blackmore in 2009.
B.C.’s Ministry of Justice appointed special prosecutor Richard Peck in 2007 to explore the option of pressing charges against Blackmore. While Peck confirmed the harmful effects of polygamy, he chose not to recommend prosecution and instead urged the province to ask for legal clarification.
The province followed Peck’s recommendation to pose a reference question to the court only after a subsequent attempt to find an independent official who would charge Blackmore failed under the allegation that B.C. was “shopping” for special prosecutors.
The B.C. Supreme Court answered a reference case in 2011, ruling after an exhaustive investigation that polygamy laws were in fact constitutional and did not violate religious liberties guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In his judgment released on Thursday, Cullen dismissed Blackmore’s request to throw out the latest charge, which was laid last year. He wrote that the reference case had sufficiently altered the Canadian legal landscape by “providing unequivocal notice to the Bountiful community of the unlawfulness of polygamy.”
In his arguments, Arvay proposed 2011 as a cutoff date for prosecution, arguing that charging Bountiful residents for historical acts of polygamy predating the reference case was “unfair” because of the legal uncertainty that surrounded the practice at the time.
Cullen ultimately accepted Crown lawyer Karen Horsman’s counter-argument that a discussion about fairness would be better heard in the context of a criminal trial.
Horsman told the court that exempting historical acts of polygamy from prosecution would effectively “grandfather” Blackmore’s activities into law and grant him criminal immunity for ongoing polygamous relationships that began prior to 2011.
Blackmore’s 25 alleged marriages took place between 1975 and 2001, a decade before the court decided Canada’s polygamy laws were constitutional.
When contacted Thursday, Arvay declined comment and said Blackmore was considering his options.
Blackmore is not the only Bountiful resident to face polygamy-related charges. James Oler, the leader of a separate fundamentalist faction in Bountiful, has also been criminally charged with polygamy.
Blackmore and Oler appeared in Creston Provincial Court on Thursday, where they opted to be tried by judge and jury. Arvay said it was too early to say where and when the trial will be scheduled.
Oler was also charged alongside Emily Crossfield and Brandon Blackmore with unlawfully removing a child from Canada for sexual purposes.
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Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press