MONTREAL (AFP, REUTERS) - Two men, including one who has 25 wives and 146 children, were convicted of polygamy on Monday (July 24) in a landmark ruling that upheld Canada's longstanding ban on the practice.
Winston Blackmore and James Marion Oler, who has five wives, face up to five years in prison after being found guilty in the first real test of the country's polygamy law, enacted 127 years ago.
Three special prosecutors had been appointed over the past two decades to consider bringing charges against the pair, but they backed down over concerns that the law prohibiting polygamy violated Canadians' Constitutional right to religious freedom.
Those fears were assuaged in 2011 when British Columbia province's 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 filed against Blackmore and Oler three years later.
Judge Sheri Ann Donegan of the British Columbia Supreme Court noted in her ruling that the main defendant, Blackmore, did not deny his polygamy.
"His adherence to the practices and beliefs of the FLDS is not in dispute," she said.
The two men are senior figures in 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.
The sect has been based for nearly 60 years in the remote, mountainous region of British Columbia near the US border where the community grows, raises or hunts its own food and runs a barter economy.
Blackmore spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse in Cranbrook after the verdict, saying that he was living his religion and that it was very important to him and his family. Oler left without speaking to reporters.
Blackmore’s lawyer Blair Suffredine told the court during the trial that he would launch a constitutional challenge of Canada’s polygamy laws if his client was found guilty.
Blackmore, 61, refused to acknowledge the charge against him and enter a plea, forcing the court to record a not guilty plea. Oler, 53, entered a not guilty plea.