‘The cults won,’ anti-polygamist says as even some supporters of Winston Blackmore mock his sentence

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Winston Blackmore leaves court in Cranbrook, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Blackmore and co-defendant James Oler are the first fundamentalist Mormons to be tried for polygamy in Canada.

Arthur Palmer reacted on Facebook minutes after a judge in British Columbia sentenced polygamists Winston Blackmore and James Oler.

“I find you guilty of polygamy, so I’m gonna punish you by sentencing you to your home to live polygamy 24 hours a day!” Palmer wrote.

Palmer is part of Blackmore’s and Oler’s extended family, and his post was quickly shared by other supporters of the two men.

“I’m obviously relieved,” Twyla Quinton, Oler’s sister, said in an online chat with The Salt Lake Tribune. “This whole thing feels like a waste of everyone’s time and money. Glad it’s over.”

Blackmore, 61, and Oler, 54, who last year became the first Canadians in a century to be convicted of polygamy, will serve six and three months of house arrest, respectively.

Each will also serve 12 months of probation. Blackmore must serve 150 hours of community service, while Oler must serve 75.

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2017, file photo, Gail Blackmore, right, and James Oler arrive at the courthouse in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Two former bishops of an isolated religious commune in British Columbia were convicted Monday, July 24, of practicing polygamy after a decadeslong legal fight launched by the provincial government. The court found James Oler married five women in so-called "celestial" marriages involving residents in the tiny religious community of Bountiful. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

In anticipation of the sentencing, some of Blackmore’s 149 children launched a public campaign in which they described themselves as a family that relies on one another, and for Blackmore to go to jail would be a hardship on the family. The Canadian Press reported Tuesday that some of his family cried in court as the sentence was read.

Critics of polygamy and of Blackmore’s marriages to teens expressed frustration and even defeat.

Sally Armstrong, a Canadian journalist and activist who has written about polygamy and child marriage, said in an email to The Tribune: “The cults won. The women and girls lost.”

Nancy Mereska, who operates the website Stop Polygamy in Canada, had hoped a prosecution and sentence would help fulfill the dream implied in her site’s name. A Nov. 23, 2011, ruling by the British Columbia Supreme Court found that polygamy is inherently harmful to women and children, and that built Mereska’s hope.

Then after the sentences, Mereska wrote a post with the headline, “Did we win the battle Nov. 23, 2011, and lose the war today? I think so!”

In an email to The Tribune, Mereska wrote she is “terribly disappointed” in the sentences, especially Blackmore’s.

“He still lives among all of his wives and will never stop propagating children,” Mereska wrote. “The sentence shows deep disrespect for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which gives equality rights to women.”

She added: “Blackmore has never been charged for his marriage to two 15-year-old girls. This is a black mark for Canadian history; and, hopefully not a precedent for other ‘religious’ groups who want to practice polygamy in Canada.”

FILE - In this April 21, 2008, file photo, Winston Blackmore, the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful near Creston, British Columbia, receives a kiss from one of his daughters as a son and a grandchild look on. Blackmore has been convicted of practicing polygamy after a decadeslong legal fight. He was found guilty Monday, July 24, 2017, by British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Sheri Ann Donegan. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press, via AP, File)

Blackmore and Oler were only charged with polygamy — no sex crimes and no charges accusing them of underage marriages. At least two of Blackmore’s 27 wives were 15 years old when he married them. That was within the age of consent in Canada at the time. Blackmore testified he married one of the teens in Utah with her parents’ consent.

Blackmore was the bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints enclave in British Columbia. FLDS President Warren Jeffs excommunicated him in 2002. Oler later became the bishop.

Mereska was not the only person to focus on Blackmore’s marriages to teens. Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham, who wrote a biography of Blackmore and has been Canada’s harshest critic of him, began her column Tuesday with the words: “It’s a travesty.”

Bramham cited trial evidence showing Blackmore married and impregnated nine women who were under 18, including the two 15-year-olds. Oler had five wives, two of whom were under 18.

The only chilling effect of the sentences, Bramham wrote, will be on the family and other witnesses who came forward to testify against the defendants.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2006 recommended Blackmore and Oler be charged with sexual exploitation, Bramham has reported, but no such charges have ever been filed.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune A Holy Bible pin on the suit of Winston Blackmore, as he leaves court in Cranbrook, B.C., Tuesday April 18, 2017. Blackmore and co-defendant James Oler are the first fundamentalist Mormons to be tried for polygamy in Canada.

The polygamy charges carried the possibility of up to five years’ incarceration. Prosecutors had asked that Blackmore be sentenced to up to six months in jail.

Justice Sheri Ann Donegan, according to news outlets in the courtroom in Cranbrook, British Columbia, discussed how both men had religious beliefs that encouraged their polygamy.

Of Blackmore, Donegan said in court, according to The Canadian Press: “He’s made it clear that no sentence will deter him from practising his faith.”

The home confinement allows Blackmore and Oler to go to work and attend to medical emergencies, The Canadian Press said.

As for the community service, Blackmore may not have to go far to complete that. The hamlet where he lives, called Bountiful, was founded on the fundamentalist Mormon belief in communal living. Since Blackmore’s excommunication from the FLDS, Bountiful has divided among current and former FLDS, but residents still cooperate on community service projects.