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Members of the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. walk down a road near Creston, B.C. Monday, April 21, 2008. (Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press)
Members of the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C. walk down a road near Creston, B.C. Monday, April 21, 2008. (Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press)

Polygamous leader will not testify at B.C. court hearings Add to ...

One of the leaders of a polygamous community in British Columbia has decided against testifying at a court reference case on Canada's law against multiple marriage, while the other made an appeal for members of the community to be given a "fair shake" in the debate.

Several residents of Bountiful are slated to testify later this month at the B.C. court hearings into the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law.

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James Oler, the leader of one of two factions in the community, was expected to be among them, but has decided against appearing, his lawyer confirmed Tuesday. He declined to explain why.

The leader of the other faction, Winston Blackmore, is boycotting the hearings after he was refused government funding. He told The Canadian Press in an e-mail exchange that he hasn't been following the case in detail.

But he questioned the experts who have testified that polygamy is inherently harmful to women and children, pointing to a law professor who appeared on Monday and said Western laws against multiple marriage are rooted in the long-standing belief that the practice is "unnatural and dangerous."

Mr. Blackmore noted the professor has never lived in a polygamous community or conducted research in one.

"I am not trying to be coy here, just wondering what makes him an expert," Mr. Blackmore wrote.

"In contrast, Jim Oler and the other FLDS people [who live in Bountiful]will certainly be experts on the topic. Give them a fair shake in the media."

Only one of the many experts who have testified has actually visited Bountiful, and she told the court the law against polygamy - not the practice itself - is oppressing the women who live there.

Most of the other academics to take the stand based their testimony on case studies in other parts of the world or historical examples of polygamy. Several discussed fundamentalist Mormon communities in the United States.

Bountiful is near the town of Creston, B.C., not far from the U.S. border.

The roughly 1,000 people who live there are members of the U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, a breakaway Mormon sect that still practises polygamy. The mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

In 2002, Warren Jeffs assumed control of the FLDS and attempted to remove Mr. Blackmore as bishop. The community is now bitterly divided into two factions, one loyal to the FLDS and controlled by Mr. Oler, and the other loyal to Mr. Blackmore. Mr. Jeffs is in a U.S. prison awaiting trial on sexual assault and bigamy charges.

The FLDS is an intervenor in the case, and its lawyer, Robert Wickett, confirmed Mr. Oler has decided not to testify.

Mr. Oler has already filed a written affidavit with the court, but his decision not to appear means the document will not be read into the record.

In his affidavit, Mr. Oler described his role as bishop in the community, where his followers are required to hand over all their property to the church, which then distributes it based on the "wants and needs" of each family.

While it is up to the bishop to decide who will be married, Mr. Oler insisted no one is ever forced to wed. Women can also pray for guidance and then request a specific husband, and Mr. Oler said those requests are almost always followed. Men don't have the same opportunity, he added, but men and women are allowed to refuse a marriage.

"There is no force in our religion," Mr. Oler wrote. "One of our strongest beliefs is that everyone has their free agency and can choose what they want. No one can be forced into heaven."

Mr. Oler said divorce is discouraged but allowed in exceptional circumstances, such as when one spouse leaves the community or commits "serious wrongdoings."

He also rejected the suggestion that expulsion is commonplace in Bountiful. Some experts have said boys and young men are forced out of FLDS communities because there are not enough single women for them to marry, but Mr. Oler said he can recall only two people who have been asked to leave for "extreme" violations of the community's code of conduct.

He said the law is hurting the people of Bountiful.

"If the criminal prohibition against polygamy was removed, I know that we would all be more comfortable in seeking the help of outside agencies," Mr. Oler said.

"I also know that the standard of living for everyone in our community would be much better if we were not diverting so many of our resources to pay lawyers and defend our rights. I personally see this as a very life-changing and wonderful day to be left alone to live our religion and to let others live theirs."

Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler were each charged in 2009 with practising polygamy, but the charges were thrown out on technical grounds.

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