The polygamy trial of two leaders of a fundamentalist Mormon community began Tuesday in the first real test of Canada’s 127-year-old ban on having more than one wife.
Winston Blackmore and James Oler were charged with polygamy in 2014 after much legal wrangling and scrutiny of their lifestyles.
Blackmore, who has always said publicly that he has multiple wives, is accused of having 24 wives (and 146 children), while Oler is alleged to have married four women, according to the indictment.
Both pleaded not guilty.
The trial is expected to hear expert testimony and review documentary evidence such as marriage certificates recovered from a concrete-encased vault during a 2008 police raid on a ranch in the US state of Texas.
Three special prosecutors had been appointed over the past two decades to consider bringing charges against the pair, but had backed down over concerns that the law prohibiting polygamy violated Canadians’ constitutional right to religious freedom.
Those fears were assuaged in 2011 when the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled in a reference case that the inherent harms of polygamy justified putting limits on religious freedoms, clearing the way for charges to be laid in 2014 against Blackmore and Oler.
Blackmore has long defended his polygamy to reporters, at a summit organised by his wives, in civil trials in the United States and under oath in Canadian federal tax court in 2012 when he struggled to name all of his wives, missing one.
He described a tight-knit group in his community in Bountiful, near Creston in British Columbia, that grows, raises or hunts its own food, and runs a barter economy – trading labour for chickens with a neighbour, for example.
The community was founded by one of his forbearers nearly 70 years ago and practised polygamy unhindered until federal police launched an investigation in the late 1990s after receiving a complaint from a former member.
Bountiful, in a remote mountainous region of British Columbia near the US border, is affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist religious sect that broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.
In the United States, Warren Jeffs, the “prophet” of the FLDS, is serving a life sentence after being convicted as an accomplice to the rape of a minor in Utah, and other charges related to the sect’s practice of marrying young girls to church leaders.
Polygamy within the Mormon tradition was disavowed in 1890, but that lead to a splintering off of families such as Blackmore’s group.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.
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