Tax court pulls back curtain shielding life inside B.C. polygamous community

Globe and Mail, Canada/February 9, 2012

For more than 20 years, Winston Blackmore has been a thorn in the side of successive British Columbia governments, practising polygamy in plain sight – or at least in the scenic community known as Bountiful – even as officials fretted over what to do about him and his followers. When a landmark court reference turned the spotlight on polygamy last year, Mr. Blackmore, who has become the face of the practice in B.C., lost a bid to have the governments of Canada and B.C. pick up his legal costs and declined to participate. The case went on without him. This year, however, Mr. Blackmore has testified under oath – in the Tax Court of Canada, where he's been questioned about his many wives and children and other details of his life in Bountiful.

The case

Mr. Blackmore is in tax court to appeal a reassessment that found he underreported his income by close to $1.5-million in five years between 2000 and 2006.

The case, which has taken several years to make its way to court, hangs on seldom-used provisions of the Income Tax Act relating to congregations.

Mr. Blackmore and his lawyers argue that Bountiful meets the requirements set out in the act and that his tax burden should be shared with the community.

The Crown maintains that Bountiful – a small community in southeastern B.C. near the Canada-U.S. border – is not a congregation and that Mr. Blackmore is, at best, the representative of a "splinter group of a splinter group."

In court, federal lawyer Lynn Burch took Mr. Blackmore through an accounting of his "plural wives," whom he married in keeping with practices of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The breakaway Mormon sect considers polygamy part of its religion, although the mainstream Mormon church disowned the practice more than a century ago.

Mr. Blackmore at times appeared to struggle to remember names and dates.

"You'll have to let me think about that for a minute," he responded when Ms. Burch asked him to name his 14th wife.

Ultimately, he named 20 women, along with his first, legally married wife, for a total of 21. That rose to 22 the next day, when he conceded to having forgotten one woman. He also acknowledged fathering at least 67 children during the period.

Mr. Blackmore testified that about half of those women have left him since 2002, when he was excommunicated in an FLDS shakeup that split Bountiful in half.

The context

Well before the Canada Revenue Agency began scrutinizing Mr. Blackmore's financial affairs, government officials took an interest in his lifestyle.

The RCMP has conducted several investigations into alleged wrongdoing in Bountiful since 1990. But those investigations did not lead to polygamy charges, largely over concerns that they might not stand up to a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In 2009, Mr. Blackmore and James Oler, also of Bountiful, were each charged with one count of polygamy. Those charges were stayed on legal grounds.

The province then pursued a reference in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The governments of Canada and B.C. argued polygamy is linked to a host of social ills, from early pregnancies to higher rates of domestic abuse, and that the law against it should be upheld.

A "friend of the court" said the ban violated Charter rights and pushed polygamy underground, making it less likely that those vulnerable to abuse would seek help from police or social agencies.

In November, 2011, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman – concluding the case was essentially about harm – ruled the law was constitutional. However, he suggested it should not be used to prosecute children aged 12 to 17 who marry into polygamous relationships.

His endorsement of the law ignited fresh calls for charges in Bountiful.

In January, B.C. Attorney-General Shirley Bond named a new special prosecutor, lawyer Peter Wilson, to the Bountiful file. His mandate does not include polygamy but focuses on "possible prosecution of sexual exploitation and other alleged offences against minors by individuals associated with the community of Bountiful from the early 1980s to the present."

In tax court, Mr. Blackmore is testifying under subpoena as a compelled witness, meaning that what he says on the stand cannot be used against him in a criminal proceeding.

Ties to Texas

On the heels of last year's landmark court reference on polygamy, Mr. Blackmore's tax hearing has provided a further window into the beliefs and day-to-day routines of residents in Bountiful, including ties between the B.C. community and FLDS outposts in the United States.

FLDS families started settling in Bountiful, now home to about 1,000 people, in the 1940s, aiming to practise plural marriage and maintaining links to FLDS communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Several of Mr. Blackmore's wives come from those communities.

Much of the testimony in the tax proceeding has concerned an FLDS shakeup in 2002, when Mr. Blackmore – the former bishop of the community – was ousted in favour of James Oler, who was backed by Warren Jeffs, then head of the FLDS in the U.S.

The religious split tore families apart and resulted in problems for Mr. Blackmore, as some employees left the business and some residents left the community.

Mr. Blackmore's sister, Marlene Palmer, testified in the tax hearing that she left the FLDS after residents were called to a church meeting and told they had two hours to affirm that Warren Jeffs was God.

"I quit being a Mormon fundamentalist that day," Ms. Palmer said.

Mr. Jeffs is in jail in Texas, serving a life sentence after being convicted last year of sex crimes involving young girls.

Accounts of underage girls being whisked across the border from Bountiful to marry much older men, including Mr. Jeffs, came up in the polygamy reference last year. An RCMP investigation is continuing.

The bottom line

In his tax hearing, Mr. Blackmore has been questioned about how he traces his lineage back to church fathers, how property is "consecrated" to the church, and about community members' obligation to tithe.

Those issues will help determine whether Bountiful is a congregation under the Income Tax Act, which requires, among other things, that members of a congregation live and work together.

The Crown maintains they do not.

"They have cars," Ms. Burch, the government lawyer, said in her opening remarks. "They have credit cards."

During the proceeding, Mr. Blackmore and other witnesses have testified about work and property in Bountiful, including work sites in B.C. and Alberta where young boys were sent to help make fence posts, which fruits and vegetables women planted in their gardens and where and how those goods were stored.

Mr. Blackmore has described a community in which people helped each other and resources were shared.

Ms. Palmer has challenged some of those descriptions, testifying, for example, that she had limited access to a large kitchen in one of Mr. Blackmore's houses.

"To my knowledge, it wasn't a community kitchen; it was Winston's kitchen," Ms. Palmer said.

If Mr. Blackmore loses his appeal, he will face a hefty tax bill along with potential penalties and interest costs.

It's not known what such a verdict would mean for Bountiful, which remains deeply divided between those loyal to Mr. Blackmore and those who follow Mr. Jeffs, who reportedly is instructing his followers from prison.

Ms. Palmer, for one, has put that dilemma behind her.

"I hit the walls of what women can do there," she told the tax court. "I made the choice of leaving the community and I am not a member, either of Warren's side or Winston's side."

The hearing, before Madam Justice Diane Campbell, is scheduled to continue this month and conclude in March.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.