It is good news that the RCMP has delivered a massive investigative report on Bountiful, B.C. – a community based on an extremist version of Mormonism, where polygamy is widely believed to be practised – to an independent special prosecutor, Peter Wilson, who will decide whether to lay criminal charges against some members of the sect.
The Criminal Code’s prohibition of polygamy is one of the most compelling examples of the great value in the Charter’s words “such reasonable limits [to freedoms] prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” In November, 2011, Robert Bauman, the Chief Justice of British Columbia, answered a reference question posed by the provincial government, with a clear upholding of the law.
Polygamy is by no means the only possible charge. Depending on his assessment of the evidence in the RCMP report, Mr. Wilson is likely to consider charges of sexual assault, sexual exploitation of minors and other similar offences.
There are ambiguities about the meaning of the word “marriage” that may make the application of the concept of multiple marriage difficult in the context of Bountiful. The allegations about the trafficking and impregnation of underage girls may well prove to be the most viable and verifiable charges.
The Criminal Justice Branch of the provincial Ministry of Justice expects Mr. Wilson to take “a number of months” to make a decision about what charges should be brought and against whom. For one thing, the RCMP is planning to give him more investigative material during that period.
In the scheme of things, those months are not a very long delay. The police first tried to investigate the leaders of Bountiful in the 1990s, but the government understandably was perplexed – not to say spooked – by the constitutional implications for freedom of religion, and various approaches to the conundrums involved ran aground.
Over the years, the provincial government made mistakes and had to change course. But there is now real hope that this matter will eventually reach a conclusion. The allegations are very serious, and they can now be seriously dealt with.