Friday, January 09, 2009

Polygamy issue thorny, but charges needed

The effort to test Canada's polygamy laws isn't likely to go well.
But it's still necessary.
Leaders of two religious communities in southeast B.C. have been arrested and charged with polygamy. One, Winston Blackmore, has acknowledged having many wives, reportedly more than 20, and some 100 children in his community of Bountiful.
The facts basic facts aren't likely to be in dispute.
But prosecutors have decided against charges for some 20 years because of the other issues the case is going to raise.
Most people don't like polygamy, especially when they hear of middle-aged men taking large numbers of teenage brides.
The sense that women are being exploited - and children treated unfairly - is unavoidable.
But the men are certain to argue that the polygamy laws violate Charter of Rights and Freedoms provisions - for starters, on religious freedom. They're members of fundamentalist sects that broke away from the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy in 1880. Polygamy is mandated by their faith, they maintain.
Religious freedom isn't absolute. But the charter ensures that the courts won't limit it lightly. Nor should the state be telling people what or what not to believe, unless there is demonstrable harm as a result of actions linked to those beliefs.
The defence will also be able to argue on wider grounds, suggesting it is none of the government's business if consenting adults decide that to live together in any arrangement. Lawyers will likely suggest thousands of Canadians are living with more than one partner without being prosecuted.
That means the prosecutors will have to show harm from the practice to justify the limitation on individual rights.
And if harm is being done, the defence will argue, prosecutors should lay charges under the laws governing those offences.
Proving harm will be challenging. The RCMP has launched investigations into sexual exploitation allegations and interviewed scores of people without finding anyone who would testify. The communities are tight-knit and socially isolated.
But the prosecution can still make the case indirectly.
Some of the facts speak for themselves. Blackmore, for example, has in the past acknowledged taking wives as young as 15. Under Canadian law today, the age of sexual consent is 16. (It was 14 until last year. The law also sets the age at 18 when one person is a position of authority or dependent upon the other.)
The court could also be asked to consider the actual likelihood of free consent of girls raised in a religious community, with no real options should they run afoul of those in power.
Witnesses can describe the effects on the boys and young men of the communities, Their chances to be married within the only faith and home they have known are slim, as older men take multiple brides.
And the court can hear expert testimony about abuses confirmed at similar Mormon splinter groups in the U.S.
The outcome is still uncertain. Religious freedom is important and the defence will have its own list of witnesses to describe the happiness and freedom of community members.
Prosecutors have consistently recommended against charges, partly for fear that the law would be struck down under the Charter.
Attorney General Wally Oppal has pressed to have the charges laid. That seems sensible. There is no point in a law that will never be used.
If the charges are proved and the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately sanctions the limit on religious freedom, then Oppal's decision will be justified.
And if the effort fails, but the trial reveals grounds for concern about the effects of polygamy, then Parliament has the chance to draft laws that will provide protection for those who need it.
These communities have sparked concern about human rights for some two decades, with no action.
Oppal deserves credit for ensuring that the issues will finally get the public, far hearing they deserve.
Footnote: An earlier version of the law, introduced in Canada's first Criminal Code in 1892, specifically mentioned the Mormon faith. The issue of faith-based polygamy is now wider - the Koran allows up to four wives and at least some Canadian Muslims reportedly practise polygamy.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

BC Rail scandal a symbol of failure

Imagine a place where police raid the legislature offices of political aides in a corruption probe involving a billion-dollar sale of a public asset.
The police talk about the destructive reach of organized crime and seize thousands of documents. The investigation involves a number of political power brokers.
Then imagine that five years later, the public still has few answers. No trial; no inquiry.
Silence from the government, which refuses to answer questions because the matter was "before the courts."
And endless delays that left the public in the dark, the three men charged in limbo and the government under a cloud.
Most people would assume, at best, that the country's system was broken.
At worst, they would fear that corruption was rife in a political and legal environment unable or unwilling to deal with it.
Welcome to B.C.
It's was a little more than five years ago that RCMP officers and Victoria police swooped in on the legislature offices of Dave Basi, a political assistant to then finance minister Gary Collins, and Bob Virk, who did the same work for transportation minister Judith Reid. (Collins and Reid have since left politics.)
They hauled away boxes of evidence. Officers also collected documents from lobbyists and operatives with ties to the federal and provincial Liberal parties.
Gordon Campbell, after completing his Hawaiian holiday, returned to say he knew nothing, but the government would co-operate fully with the investigation.
That hasn't really happened. The government has chosen to argue that a number of documents sought by the defence lawyers should be kept secret.
It's exercising its option to claim the documents are privileged, either as legal advice or cabinet material. If the government had chosen to, it could have released all the relevant material. Instead, legal wrangles have delayed the trial.
And the questions have mounted, as the only information - almost all unsubstantiated - has trickled out during various pretrial legal hearings, generally over the prosecution's failure to disclose evidence.
It's known that the RCMP alleged lobbyist Eric Bornman paid Basi about $24,000 over the course of a year for information and steering clients his way. The two knew each other well; both were active in the federal Liberal party. Police also alleged Basi and his cousin Virk went with their spouses to Denver in 2002 and watched an NFL game. They sat with Gary Rennick, a top exec with OmniTRAX, then a bidder for BC Rail. Lobbyist Brian Kieran, a partner with Bornman in Pilothouse Public Affairs, paid for the trip, police claimed.
Both men are expected to be witnesses; neither was charged. Basi and Virk face fraud and breach of trust charges.
And it's known that enough went wrong that the government was forced to cancel the sale of a B.C. Rail spur line after the process was started in case the process was corrupted. That cost taxpayers more than $1 million. (Legal costs are likely 10 times that amount already.)
But nothing has been proven. The public has no answers about what information, if any, changed hands. Defence lawyers have suggested they will show the two men were simply acting on behalf of their political masters and have done nothing wring.
The raids took place Dec. 28, 2003, midway through the Liberals' first term. There were no answers by the 2005 election.
And there will be no answers before the 2009 election. The special prosecutor is going to the Supreme Court of Canada to challenge a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling that defence lawyers have a right to know the identity of a secret informant.
Meanwhile, of course, Basi and Virk and Aneal Basi, another government employee charged, are under a cloud with no chance to clear their names.
Imagine a place where corruption in the corridors of government had been alleged five years earlier, charges had been laid and there were still no answers. Welcome to B.C.
Footnote: The odds are increasing that the case will be tossed out due to unreasonable delays, although the defence camp has said that it wanted to be vindicated in a trial. If charges are dismissed due to delay would leave a public inquiry as the only way to answer the corruption questions. (For a great guide to the case, see