LISTER, B.C. – Marsha Chatwin is guarded in what she’ll say about her marriage to Winston Blackmore, one of the leaders of a small religious community in southeastern British Columbia known as Bountiful.
When asked when she married Blackmore, who was charged this week with practising polygamy and is accused of marrying 24 women, Chatwin simply says it’s been “a long time.”
She pauses when asked how many children she and Blackmore have, but reluctantly says they’ve had six, though she and her children don’t live with Blackmore. She declines to talk about whether she has a job; it’s not unusual for women in Bountiful to work as teachers or midwives.
But Chatwin doesn’t hesitate when asked about the latest criminal case hanging over a community she describes as “a polygamous place.”
“It seems ridiculous that they would say you can have relationships with people but if it’s in the name of religion, then you can’t,” Chatwin, whose name is listed among Blackmore’s alleged polygamous wives in an indictment filed this week, told The Canadian Press.
“This is not freedom.”
Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with one count of practising polygamy. Oler is accused of having four wives.
Oler was also charged with unlawfully removing a child from Canada to commit the offences of sexual interference or invitation to sexual touching. Two other people were also charged with illegally removing a child from the country.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
About 1,000 people live in Bountiful, the informal name of an area in the town of Lister, which is located about 480 kilometres east of Vancouver near the Canada-U.S. border. Members of the community follow a fundamentalist form of Mormonism that, unlike the mainstream Mormon church, still condones polygamy.
The community split into two factions more than a decade ago, with Blackmore leading one side and Oler, who is affiliated with jailed American polygamist Warren Jeffs, leading the other. However, Chatwin said Oler hasn’t been in charge of that side of the community for some time.
Bountiful has been the subject of numerous investigations dating back to the early 1990s amid allegations of polygamy, sexual abuse and child trafficking, including a failed prosecution of Blackmore and Oler in 2009.
Polygamy charges against the men were thrown out, prompting the provincial government to launch a constitutional reference case. A judge eventually ruled the polygamy law does not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The constitutional case saw documents seized from a fundamentalist Mormon church in the United States that detailed 13 alleged instances in which underage girls from Bountiful were taken to the United States to marry older men. All 13 of those alleged cases appeared to involve Oler’s side of the community.
The court also heard evidence from American authorities that alleged Blackmore married someone identified in an affidavit from an Texas police officer as “Child U” in Utah in 1999.
Two of Blackmore’s daughters were married in the United States, according to the affidavit, which also listed Blackmore as a witness to three underage marriages.
When asked about allegations of young girls being taken across the border to be wed, Chatwin replied: “I don’t know about that stuff. … I’m against underage marriages.”
While the community is frequently described as isolated, Chatwin rejected the notion.
“We know people outside of here, all the time, and we don’t have fences around our community,” she said.
“We’re open. In fact, we’re more open now than we’ve ever been.”
Blackmore did not return repeated messages requesting an interview.
Blackmore has publicly admitted to having multiple wives. He told a tax court in 2012 that he had 22 wives and 67 children.
Blackmore, Oler and the two other people who were charged — Brandon Blackmore and Emily Crossfield — are all scheduled to make their first court appearance on Oct. 9 in Creston, B.C., which is just north of Bountiful.