Polygamy issue runs deep in the Blackmore family

Vancouver Sun/February 17, 2009

Winston Blackmore and James Oler will make their second appearance in provincial court in Creston on Wednesday, charged under a law that Blackmore's uncle is credited with having helped to amend.

It's the law that forbids polygamy, which was altered in the mid-1950s, toward the end of John H. Blackmore's 23-year tenure in Parliament.

John Blackmore was first elected as the Social Credit MP for Lethbridge in 1935, the first Mormon elected to the House of Commons and the Socred party's first national leader.

Blackmore was replaced as leader after another Mormon, Solon Low, was elected. But the two worked hard to get specific references to Mormons extracted from the anti-polygamy law, even though Blackmore was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1947.

Blackmore never had more than one wife. But he was thrown out of the church for "teaching and advocating the doctrine of plural marriage" at secret meetings in southern Alberta where men debated whether Mormon leaders were wrong to have renounced Joseph Smith's revelation that it's okay for men to have multiple wives.

A year before Blackmore was excommunicated, one of his 12 children, Harold, bought property outside Creston and settled there with his two wives and a growing brood of children. Soon, John's brother, Ray, bought property there as well and took up residence with his first two wives. Eventually, he had five wives and more than 30 children, including Winston.

Although no longer a polygamist or affiliated with the church, John Blackmore continued to urge Parliament to amend the anti-polygamy law, which had its genesis at a meeting in 1888 when Canada's first Mormon settlers went to Ottawa to ask Sir John A. Macdonald for special dispensation to bring their plural wives and families from Utah.

One of the men was Charles O. Card, a fugitive who'd been charged with polygamy and fled to Canada. (Card later returned to face the charges and was acquitted by a jury, made up almost exclusively of Mormons, because of the weak testimony of one of his wives, Sarah Jane Birdneau.)

Under no circumstances would Canada allow polygamy, Macdonald told them. But Mormons were welcome to immigrate with one wife and Canada even embarked on a recruitment program in Utah to encourage settlers.

As their numbers grew in south Alberta, reports of polygamy kept drifting back to Ottawa. On May 2, 1890, the government passed a Criminal Code amendment that made it an indictable offence to practise or advocate polygamy or "spiritual wifery," according to Brigham Y. Card in the book, The Mormon Presence in Canada. The penalty then was up to five years in jail (as it remains today) and a fine of $500.

The Criminal Code specifically prohibited "what among the persons commonly called Mormons is known as spiritual or plural marriage." The bigamy section was also stiffened to criminalize any men who married two women on the same day or any person who married a second spouse, whether that marriage was in Canada or another country.

Five months after those laws were passed, Wilford Woodruff -- president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- issued a manifesto renouncing the earthly practice of polygamy.

Yet, it took more than 60 years before the specific reference to Mormons and spiritual marriage was taken out of the Criminal Code. "This was due chiefly to the work of John Horne Blackmore and Solon Low," B. Carmon Hardy wrote in The Mormon Presence in Canada.

The current Criminal Code's Section 293 says: "Everyone who practises or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practise or enter into any form of polygamy or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage or celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship mentioned [above] is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years."

Yet Winston Blackmore -- a husband to 26 and father to 118 children -- hopes to do one better than his uncle. He wants polygamy legalized. He wants the court to declare the law unconstitutional and an over-reaching limit on his right to practise his religion.

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