VANCOUVER — The leader of a fundamentalist religious commune in British Columbia’s southern interior will square off in court today against the provincial government over whether the province has the right to charge him with polygamy.
Winston Blackmore filed a petition in late February asking the B.C. Supreme Court to quash the criminal charge, arguing that B.C.’s attorney general improperly appointed Peter Wilson, the special prosecutor who recommended the charge.
The court threw out an earlier attempt to prosecute the head of the remote, Mormon breakaway community of Bountiful after Blackmore’s lawyer Joe Arvay successfully argued the government couldn’t keep appointing successive prosecutors until it got the recommendation it wanted.
In 2007, special prosecutor Richard Peck concluded that polygamy was the root cause of Bountiful’s alleged issues. But instead of recommending charges he suggested a constitutional question be referred to the courts to provide more legal clarity.
The province responded by appointing another special prosecutor, who recommended charges in 2009. They were ultimately dismissed after Blackmore’s lawyer persuaded the court that Peck’s initial decision should be final.
That prompted the B.C. government to launch a constitutional reference case, which ended in 2011 when a B.C. Supreme Court judge concluded the law making polygamy illegal doesn’t violate the religious protections in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A year later, then-Attorney General Shirley Bond appointed Wilson as a special prosecutor. He approved charges against Blackmore, alleging the leader had 24 wives. Wilson also recommend a polygamy charge against James Oler, who leads a separate faction in Bountiful and has an alleged four wives.
Arvay countered with the same argument used three years earlier — that Wilson’s appointment was improper and that the province was bound to follow the initial special prosecutor’s decision.
In late April the province filed documents in court defending its right to seek a polygamy charge against Blackmore.
“(The judge) expressly found that the successive appointment of special prosecutors is authorized … where there has been a change in circumstances,”‘ read the submission.
The province said it is justified in reopening the case against Blackmore because of new police evidence collected from a fundamentalist ranch in Texas, as well as more constitutional certainty following the 2011 court decision that confirmed polygamy violated the Criminal Code.
Oler was also charged alongside Emily Crossfield and Brandon Blackmore with unlawfully removing a child from Canada for sexual purposes.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
— Follow @gwomand on Twitter
Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press