Polygamous marriages in the religious commune of Bountiful, B.C. are once again under the scrutiny of the RCMP, following two decades of similar investigations that have so far failed to lead to a single conviction.
The Mounties have investigated plural marriages in Bountiful since the early 1990s, but persistent questions about the constitutionality of the law and a successful legal challenge three years ago have meant only two people have ever been charged and no one has been convicted.
The RCMP launched an investigation last year focusing on allegations that dozens of teen brides were spirited across the U.S. border to marry older men, but officers weren’t actively considering charges of polygamy because of an ongoing constitutional reference case examining the law.
That changed this week after the province’s attorney-general – buoyed by a court ruling last November that upheld the law – instructed a special prosecutor to consider polygamy charges.
“There’s a renewed focus on it now,” RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said Friday.
“The special prosecutor is in possession of some of our previous findings, and if we uncover further information that shows what we believe to be elements of this offence [of polygamy] we would forward that, as well.”
Bountiful is an isolated commune of roughly a thousand people located in southeastern British Columbia near the town of Creston, not far from the U.S. border. Bountiful residents are members of a breakaway Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, which holds multiple marriage as an important tenet of the faith.
Despite years of investigation, the only time anyone from Bountiful has faced charges related to multiple marriage was in 2009, when Winston Blackmore and James Oler – who each lead divided factions within the community – were each charged with practising polygamy.
Those charges were thrown out later that year when a judge concluded the government violated the men’s rights when it chose its prosecutors.
That prompted the province to launch a constitutional reference case in B.C. Supreme Court to settle questions about the anti-polygamy law once and for all. After two months of hearings, the court issued a ruling last November that concluded the harms associated with polygamy, from child brides to sexual abuse, outweigh any claims to religious freedom.
Neither side opted to appeal the case to a higher court, and this week attorney-general Shirley Bond announced she wouldn’t be launching additional reference cases at the B.C. Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada.
She instructed special prosecutor Peter Wilson, who was already considering charges related to allegations of cross-border marriages, to add polygamy to his mandate.
When asked about Ms. Bond’s decision, polygamist leader Winston Blackmore would only say he wasn’t surprised.
“It seems to be going exactly as my lawyers predicted it would go,” Mr. Blackmore wrote in a brief e-mail to The Canadian Press.
Cpl. Moskaluk said the RCMP have visited Bountiful, but he declined to reveal anything else about the investigation. Last year, officers travelled to Texas to examine FLDS records seized during a 2008 raid on the church’s Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado.
Some of those documents were entered into evidence during the B.C. constitutional case, and they outlined dozens of marriages involving teenage girls from Bountiful who were married to American men, and several involving girls from the U.S. who were married to Canadians.
Both Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler were implicated in the documents.
In at least one marriage, Mr. Blackmore was listed in the documents as the husband of a child bride. In two others, he was alleged to have taken his own daughters across the border to be wed.
Another marriage involved an American girl allegedly married to Mr. Oler.
At least three girls from Bountiful – two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old – were taken to the U.S. by their parents and married to leader Warren Jeffs, according to the church records.
Mr. Jeffs is the self-proclaimed leader of the FLDS and is now in prison for sexually assaulting two of his teen brides.
With a file from Dirk Meissner in Victoria