First Criminal Polygamy Trial in Canada Begins

While there have been a variety of court actions surrounding polygamy, the criminal charge has never been taken to trial. That is set to change with the trial of polygamist Winston Blackmore and James Oler, in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Blackmore is accused of having two-dozen wives over a 25-year period, and Oler of having four wives, in violation of s. 293 of the Criminal Code.

This case has been pending since 2007, when BC Attorney General Wally Oppal appointed a special prosecutor to review RCMP files on Blackmore and his religious community, known as “Bountiful”. This prosecutor recommended a constitutional reference rather than criminal charges. A second, and then third prosecutor was appointed, with the third agreeing to lay charges; however, those charges were stayed upon a finding that the prosecutors had been improperly appointed.

The constitutional reference case followed, in which the criminal prohibition was held to be a justifiable limit on the Charter rights of religious freedom and association. CLF intervened in that litigation, and the BC Supreme Court adopted a number of its submissions related to the harmful effects of polygamy.  The current, and fourth, prosecutor has had carriage of the criminal case since 2014. Blackmore’s lawyer has indicated that the defence will squarely raise the question of religious freedom and argue that Blackmore is entitled to an exemption of criminal prosecution on the grounds of his religious belief. The trial is expected to last several weeks.