A special prosecutor looking into potential crimes linked to the community of Bountiful now has the mandate to weigh polygamy charges after the province decided a recent court ruling is strong enough to make them stick.
“I asked our team to take a very thorough look at the ruling – because we wanted to make sure we felt we had enough strength in that ruling to proceed with potential polygamy charges,” Attorney General Shirley Bond said on Monday in Victoria.
“I’m very pleased to say today that our team believes that in and of itself the ruling was strong enough that we can move forward potentially with polygamy charges.”
In a landmark decision last year, Supreme Court of B.C. Chief Justice Robert Bauman said Canada’s criminal prohibition against polygamy should be upheld, citing harms to women, children and society that result from the practice.
On Monday, Ms. Bond said the province would not refer the decision to a higher court because the government’s lawyers have deemed Judge Bauman’s decision allows prosecutors to pursue potential polygamy charges.
Vancouver lawyer Peter Wilson was appointed in January to look into possible offences involving people linked to Bountiful, a settlement in southeastern B.C. that is home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The FLDS, an offshoot Mormon sect, considers polygamy a tenet of its faith even though the mainstream Mormon church renounced the practice more than a century ago.
At the time he was appointed, Mr. Wilson’s mandate did not include polygamy, but focused on potential offences against minors, including sexual assault, sexual interference, and parents or guardians procuring sexual activity.
Details about activity involving minors – including young girls from Bountiful being whisked across the border to the United States to marry much older men, including FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, now jailed for sex crimes – were discussed last year in the case that led to the ruling.
Successive B.C. governments have weighed polygamy prosecutions for decades, but charges didn’t proceed, largely over concerns that they would not stand up to a constitutional challenge.
Winston Blackmore and James Oler, heads of rival factions in Bountiful, were each charged with one count of polygamy in 2009.
The charges were set aside after a 2009 court ruling found problems with the way the province pursued the case.
Rather than appeal that ruling, the province pursued a reference through the B.C. Supreme Court, saying that going through the lower court instead of the higher Appeal Court would allow witnesses to be called and put a human face on polygamy.
Over more than 40 days, Judge Bauman heard from experts in areas including anthropology, law and economics, and laypeople, including FLDS members who were allowed to testify anonymously.
Evidence that came up during the court proceeding of under-age marriages sparked a renewed RCMP investigation.
Asked whether charges could be laid based on evidence in hand or whether additional investigation is required, Ms. Bond said that would be up to the RCMP and the special prosecutor.
“They’ll liaise and look at what is there today,” she said.
Mr. Wilson declined to comment.
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria