Orcinus, January 9, 2009
The Canadian press has erupted in the last hour or so with the news that former Bountiful, BC polygamist Mormon patriarch Winston Blackmore and his second-in-command Fred Oler have been arrested and charged with polygamy.
Blackmore ran the Bountiful compound until being displaced in a power struggle with Warren Jeffs two years ago; these days, he’s set up nearby with a new place of his own. He’s thought to have 26 wives — including, as he publicly announced at a 2006 polygamy conference, several “very young ones” and at least one who was under the age of 16 at the time he made that claim. And then he repeated that statement on Larry King. This is a man who knows he’s a child rapist, and is rather pleased with himself for his ability to get away with it.
Today, that ended. What’s most interesting about this, though, is that the two men were directly charged with polygamy — a step no jurisdiction dealing with the FLDS has yet dared to take. Through the decades, prosecutors have focused on the fallout crimes that result from these communities: child abuse and abandonment, forced marriage, rape, consipiracy to transport minors for immoral purposes across state lines, that kind of thing. But, so far as I know, no prosecutor has yet dared to stand up and charge any of these men directly for committing polygamy. Which makes today’s arrest a historical landmark of sorts.
Polygamy’s a tough charge to make. In this day and age, most of us agree that it’s nobody’s business what consenting adults do, or what domestic arrangements they make. It’s in even trickier in Canada, where the very idea of marriage itself is up for legal grabs right now. There are older marriage laws in place, of course — mostly rather conservative ones derived from English Common Law (in the Anglo provinces) and the Napoleonic Code (in Quebec). But few of these definitions have been revisited since the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed in 1982. And when they have been revisited — as in the gay marriage discussion four years ago — the new intrepretations have generally tended to favor the most expansive definition of marriage possible.
In the face of that, the BC government has been very reluctant in the past to slap a polygamy charge on the Bountiful boys. Their biggest fear was that if they did, the case would end up in the Supreme Court, which would then rule that the anti-polygamy laws on the books are now illegal. The upshot is that, for decades, prosecutors have refused to use the legal tools at their disposal for fear that those tools would be taken away entirely. Nice Catch-22 ya got there.
Back in June, Attorney-General Wally Oppal — an Indo-Canadian who is by all accounts possessed of great big brass ones and very much ready to deal with the FLDS once and for all — named a special prosector to explore the legal options. That prosecutor’s analysis has apparently convinced Oppal that the polygamy law can withstand a Supreme Court challenge. That’s why he’s decided to take the FLDS head-on in a way that’s likely to make history, one way or another.
The other important thing about this story is that it’s another example of how the FLDS’ intricate strategy of moving people between compounds in various states and countries is continuing to unravel. (For example: Bountiful is literally walking distance from another, smaller compound just over the border in Idaho. Wives and children routinely fled from one to the other to avoid unwanted attention.) Not only are the attorneys general in Utah, Texas, Arizona, and now BC on warpath; they’re often sharing information and coordinating strategy. Oppal’s bold move creates fresh trouble in a jurisdiction that’s never been much trouble before, and that can only be a good thing in the long run.
As always, the Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Bramham is the reporter with the edge on this. More as it unfolds.