CRANBROOK, B.C. — Two men who took multiple wives — some as young as 15 — will serve no time in jail after a B.C. Supreme Court judge gave them conditional sentences on Tuesday.
Winston Blackmore, 61, and 54-year-old James Oler are part of a breakaway Mormon sect and became the first Canadians in more than a century to be found guilty of polygamy last year.
Justice Sheri Ann Donegan handed a sentence of six months to Blackmore and three months to Oler. Both men are to serve their terms under house arrest, with exceptions for work, necessary errands and medical emergencies.
Blackmore has also been ordered to perform 150 hours of community service work, while Oler must do 75 hours. Both will also have 12 months of probation.
“Determining a proportionate sentence is a delicate task,” Donegan said as she delivered her decision in a Cranbrook, B.C., courtroom.
“Sentences that are too lenient and sentences that are too harsh can undermine public confidence in the administration of justice,” she said.
The 36-seat courtroom gallery was full of many of Blackmore relatives, who cried and embraced after Donegan announced the sentence.
The court heard Blackmore married his first wife, ex-Bountiful member Jane Blackmore, in 1975 and went on to marry 24 more women in so-called celestial marriages. Nine wives were under the age of 18, and four were 15 at the time they were married, Donegan noted in her decision.
Oler had five wives, Donegan said. One was 15, and another had just turned 17 at the time of their marriages.
Blackmore and Oler were both raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which practises plural marriage.
They led rival factions in 2002 following a schism in the small religious community of Bountiful in southeastern British Columbia.
Oler was excommunicated from the church around 2012 and now lives in Alberta, and Donegan noted it’s not clear whether he wishes to return.
Blackmore continues to live in the community and hold a prominent position there.
Donegan described both men as hard workers and otherwise law-abiding citizens who practise polygamy because of religious beliefs.
“He’s made it clear that no sentence will deter him from practising his faith,” she said of Blackmore, who has 149 children.
“The concept of remorse is foreign to him in this context because … he cannot feel remorseful for his family.”
Donegan said an aggravating factor for Blackmore was the fact that he continued to practise polygamy after a 2011 reference case that confirmed it is illegal in Canada.
“He did not heed that fair notice,” Donegan said.
She said Oler’s crimes were motivated by his “sincerely held religious beliefs instilled in him at an early age.”
“He does not feel any remorse for his offence because he feels he did not know any other way of life and sees no harm or victims in his offence.”
The maximum sentence for polygamy under the Criminal Code is five years in prison.
There are only two other convictions for polygamy in Canadian history, but because those cases took place in 1899 and 1906, Donegan said they didn’t set a precedent in determining sentences for the men.
Blackmore’s lawyer, Blair Suffredine, said outside court that his client accepts the outcome.
“It’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. ”He’s had 25 years of government coming after him for something he wasn’t sure was a crime and he felt it was only because of his religious beliefs that he was doing it.”
Alisia Adams, with B.C.’s prosecution service, said Donegan exercised leniency and restraint in a unique case with no recent historical precedent.
“This sentencing, and the conviction on which it was based, sent a message to members of the Bountiful community and other communities that practise polygamy that the law prohibiting polygamy is constitutionally valid and may result in jail sentences.”
Lauren Krugel , The Canadian Press