CRANBROOK (NEWS 1130) – The case of a man accused of being married to two dozen women over the past 25 years finally goes to trial today after decades of legal wrangling around the issue of polygamy in Canada.
Winston Blackmore, the breakaway Mormon leader of Bountiful, is set to go before a judge in Cranbrook along with James Oler, who is accused of marrying four women between 1993 and 2009. Both have entered not guilty pleas.
NEWS 1130 Legal Analyst Michael Shapray points out it has been a long road since police first started investigating reports of multiple marriages in the isolated community in the Kootenays in the early 1990s. “There has been a tortured history over the last 10 or 15 years with the prosecution not starting, then challenges to the special prosecutor and different decisions being made by different politicians.”
There have been several efforts to clarify the legislation, including a reference question to the BC Supreme Court which ruled in 2011 that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and did not violate religious freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“When people start to rely on religious freedom and use that as grounds to challenge the legality or constitutionality of law or to fight whether or not someone should be sentenced for something they say is part of their religious belief… it certainly adds some complexity to the proceedings,” says Shapray, adding the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, is precedent-setting. “Under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms — with polygamy laws in particular — these are uncharted waters. There is no real background for how the courts are going to deal with this case.”
Blackmore and Oler are to be tried by judge alone.
The lawyer for Blackmore had asked the court to hold separate trials for the men last week.
The judge dismissed the request, ruling she wanted to “balance the interests of the public and the accused,” and was not persuaded that the trial needed to be separated.