Times Colonist

Oppal’s polygamy fight likely doomed

- LES LEYNE

There is one topic that will move Attorney General Wally Oppal off his standard “no-placefor-politics-in-the-justice-system” stand on touchy legal issues.

That’s the prospect of middle-aged men marrying several women and having sex with teenagers, as has apparently been the practice at the Bountiful commune for generation­s.

The Creston commune on the Canada-U.S. border has been the “bane of every attorney general in the last 20 years,” Oppal said this week. So he’s parking his usual reticence and wading once again into the fray.

The attorney general is setting yet another outside lawyer on the Bountiful file, with orders to assess whether charges against the patriarchy that runs the commune are warranted.

It’s the third hired gun Oppal has retained in the last year. The previous two didn’t come up with the game plan that Oppal wanted.

Richard Peck was retained in last June to determine whether polygamy charges should be laid. Like several previous Crown prosecutor­s over the years, he decided they shouldn’t. There were questions about the likelihood of conviction and a widespread view that the antipolyga­my law would be found unconstitu­tional because it limits the Bountiful men’s religious freedom.

Instead, Peck suggested the government take the antipolyga­my law to the courts for a reference ruling. That would establish whether it contravene­d the charter.

Oppal wanted a green light to go ahead with charges. Instead, he got a yellow light. Still looking to press ahead, he hired another lawyer, Leonard Doust, to review Peck’s rationale.

But Doust concurred with Peck in recommendi­ng the reference approach. Doust also found that a polygamy charge would be unfair to those involved, given previously publicized legal opinions about the constituti­onality of polygamy laws.

Two swings, two misses for the attorney general. Oppal has spoken out repeatedly against the polygamous commune, but was in danger of joining the long list of predecesso­rs who never did much of anything about it.

Oppal’s third swing at this case came Monday, with the appointmen­t of Terrence Robertson as special prosecutor.

Oppal said in a letter to the criminal justice branch that he disagrees with Peck, he disagrees with Doust and he disagrees with the branch’s view that the polygamy law is unconstitu­tional.

So he ordered them to put Robertson on the case.

Robertson is to determine whether a charge is in the public interest and whether there’s a substantia­l likelihood of conviction. If so, he is to conduct the prosecutio­n.

Lawyers have been arguing these fine points for years, but concern has intensifie­d since Texas authoritie­s raided a similar commune in April. In fact, a related one.

Oppal told reporters it stirred up a lot more debate in Canada. It also showed how complex and difficult the situation is, since a Texas court ruled later that the authoritie­s oversteppe­d their bounds.

His message to the men of Bountiful? “I don’t want them to think that we think the law gives them the right to do what they’re doing.”

Unfortunat­ely for Oppal, that’s exactly what we do think, as all the previous legal views make clear.

But public opinion is running against the commune and Oppal freely conceded how much that has to do with this long-running case. “The public is concerned and I take the public view into considerat­ion,” he said. It’s not the only factor, but “rightthink­ing people have informed us they want us to do something.”

He isn’t the only politician ready to take the men of Bountiful on.

Earlier in the legislativ­e session there was an unusual scene where the two closest MLAs to the community, a Liberal and a New Democrat, spoke in favour of action.

Nelson-Creston MLA Corky Evans said the crossborde­r immigratio­n that aids polygamy should be curtailed and women in the commune should be helped to leave if they want.

East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett said polygamy “must be stopped.”

“The B.C. children and women on our television screens from Texas recently illustrate that we must take action to support women and children trapped in this polygamist cult,” he said.

Bennett said it engenders child abuse and prompts traffickin­g of young women across the border.

Despite the full-scale political and legal campaign against the polygamist­s, don’t look for progress any time soon.

It’s an uphill legal battle and B.C. is dragging a lot of baggage into the fight.

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