CRANBROOK, B.C. – A British Columbia man found guilty of marrying two dozen women says he believed he was entitled to practice polygamy because he wasn’t charged when police investigated the allegations in the 1990s.
Winston Blackmore appeared in B.C. Supreme Court in Cranbrook on Tuesday, where a judge is hearing arguments on whether Canada’s polygamy laws infringe on his rights to freedom of religion and expression.
Blackmore is a leader of the small community of Bountiful, B.C., where the court has heard residents follow the tenants of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect that condones plural or “celestial” marriage.
He was found guilty earlier this year of one count of polygamy after the court heard he had married 24 women, including three who were 15 years old at the time.
His co-accused, James Oler, was found guilty of having five wives.
Blackmore is asking for a stay of the proceedings and an exemption from prosecution based on his religious beliefs. If he is convicted, Blackmore is asking for an absolute discharge.
The convictions have not be entered pending the outcome of the constitutional arguments.
Blackmore says in an affidavit for the current court proceedings that he was detained by RCMP investigating polygamy allegations in 1990, and later released without charges being laid.
The court document says he believed the release without charges meant he could practice polygamy and he relied on that when he proceeded with future marriages.
In 2011, a decision from the B.C. Supreme Court said Canada’s polygamy law was constitutional and that eventually led to charges being approved against Blackmore and Oler.
The constitutional reference case established that polygamy is a crime and the harms of plural marriage outweigh any claims to freedom of religion.
The court found the harms arising out of the practice of polygamy include physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women and the expulsion of young men who have no women left to marry.
Blackmore is now arguing that polygamous marriages occurring before the decision should not be prosecuted, as it was not legally and constitutionally clear whether it was a crime.
He testified in court on Tuesday, saying that as far as he knew, plural marriage, or polygamy, is legal and lawful in the sight of God.
Special prosecutor Peter Wilson suggested that Blackmore knows the marriages aren’t legal, lawful and proper in the eyes of the Government of Canada.
“Fair statement?” Wilson asked Blackmore in court.
“Fair statement,” Blackmore answered.