CANADA

The practice of polygamy

A Mormon colony stirs a B. C. controversy

STEVE WEATHERBE August 16 1993
CANADA

The practice of polygamy

A Mormon colony stirs a B. C. controversy

STEVE WEATHERBE August 16 1993

The practice of polygamy

CANADA

A Mormon colony stirs a B. C. controversy

Unlike many other parts of British Columbia’s mountainous Interior, the town of Creston is no tourist mecca. A pleasant community of 4,500 people, Creston’s trim frame homes sprawl across a ridge in the southeastern part of the province, just north of the U.S. border. The town boasts no hot springs, no water slides— not even a miniature golf course to amuse visitors. But about 15 km south of Creston, along back roads choked with wildflowers, lies a collection of large modern homes scattered among 700 acres of hay fields. And it is here, in a place known as Bountiful, that a small colony of practising polygamists has, for better or ill, put Creston on the map.

Over the past three years, the 400 members of the Bountiful colony have found them-

selves in the glare of unwelcome publicity. During that time, the colonists—part of a fundamentalist sect that broke with the Mormon church over the latter’s decision to abandon the practice of polygamy—have been the subject of a 13-month RCMP investigation. It concluded that two of Bountiful’s leaders should be prosecuted for violating the Criminal Code’s prohibition of polygamy—a recommendation that is currently the subject of heated debate between British Columbia and federal justice officials. As well, in four separate criminal cases, four former members of the colony have been convicted of sexual assault charges. In the most recent case, Alberta Youth Court Judge Fred Coward last month sentenced a 16-year-old boy to one year’s probation for sexually molesting his

half sister. During his trial in Lethbridge, the boy’s lawyer, Brenda Gash, told the judge that her client—who cannot be named under the Young Offenders Act—had been born and raised at the Bountiful colony, where, she claimed, children are given a distorted view of relations between the sexes and “sexual molestation seems to be the order of the day.”

The testimony from the Lethbridge trial also sparked renewed controversy about the quality of education and the values being taught at the colony-run private school, which receives about $400,000 annually from the B.C. department of education. The accused testified that although he was in Grade 5 when he left the colony with his mother in 1988, he had to repeat Grade 4 after they moved to Alberta. He also claimed that the Bountiful school taught that women are not equal to men and are raised only to be married and have children. Following the trial, B.C. Education Minister Anita Hagan told reporters that the Bountiful school had undergone two independent reviews over the past four years—and that in both cases it met provincial standards. Bishop Winston Blackmore, head of the Bountiful colony, rejected claims that the school teaches that women are inferior. But in an interview with Maclean’s at his office in Bountiful, he readily acknowledged that the school promotes polygamy and other values peculiar to the sect. “Why else would we want our own school?” he said. “Isn’t that exactly why the Catholics have theirs?”

The 37-year-old Blackmore is the son of one of the co-founders of the Bountiful colony. Established in 1946, the colony is part of the 10,000-member, Arizona-based United Effort Order. The sect claims that it is staying true to the precepts of Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon church in 1830 and cited the example of Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham to justify polygamy. But in 1890, the Mormon church agreed to abandon

the practice as part of a deal with the U.S. government.

To Blackmore and his followers, polygamy is not only permissible—it is necessary for salvation. The extent to which Blackmore is seeking salvation is a point of some dispute, however. During the Lethbridge trial. Gash claimed that Blackmore had “seven wives, some the same age as his children.” But Blackmore declines to disclose how many women he has married. Ironically, he maintains that the majority of marriages in Bountiful are monogamous—a phenomenon that he blames on young people failing to follow church teachings.

For most of its existence, the Bountiful colony, nestled in a valley between the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges, operated in relative obscurity. In fact, in Crestón, where many of the colony members work and shop, most residents appear to take a live-and-let-live approach to their unusual neighbours. Crestón Mayor Lela Irvine, for one, describes the Bountiful residents as “good citizens” who contribute to the economy and actively participate in parades, concerts and other community events. Still, concedes, Irvine, “nobody likes all the media attention” that the legal disputes involving Bountiful colonists have brought to the Crestón area.

Much of the negative publicity regarding the colony has been generated by Debbie Palmer, now 37, who was bom and raised in Bountiful, but who fled the community along with her children in 1988. Palmer, who now lives in Calgary, has told reporters that at age 15 the colony elders arranged a marriage between her and a 57-year-old man who already had five wives and 37 children—many of them older than she. When he died three years later, Palmer says, the colony leaders assigned her to a 59-year-old who kept her, another wife and eight children in two uninsulated rooms at the back of a store. Driven to despair and thoughts of suicide, she convinced the elders to move her once again. This time, she became the third wife in a household of 22 children. A combination of stress and physical and sexual abuse, she says, provoked her departure.

The colony has also been rocked by a number of recent criminal charges involving members of the sect. In addition to the trial of the 16-year-old in Lethbridge, a man was convicted of indecent assault against his wife’s sister in June, 1990. in February, 1991, a 17year-old pleaded guilty to three counts of sexually molesting his three half-sisters, aged six to 11. And five months later, another member of the sect, who is in his mid-’30s, was convicted of one count of sexual assault against one of his wives.

Some of the evidence emerging from the criminal cases prompted the Crestón RCMP to launch an investigation into the Bountiful colony. In October, 1991, the RCMP recommended that Blackmore and Dalmin Oler, a 58-year-old co-founder of the colony, be charged with practising polygamy under Section 293 of the Criminal Code, which allows for a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. But in June, 1992, the B.C. attorney general’s office announced that no charges would be laid because Canada’s century-old anti-polygamy law had been superseded by freedom-of-religion guarantees included in the Charter of Rights.

The province’s decision not to prosecute drew sharp criticism from Mary Collins, the federal minister responsible for women’s issues. More than a year later, the issue remains contentious. Following the Lethbridge trial, a federal justice ministry lawyer declared that if the province did not prosecute the alleged polygamists, Ottawa would find a way to do it. That threat earned a sharp rebuke from B.C. Attorney General Colin Gabelmann, who reminded Ottawa that criminal prosecutions are a provincial preserve. Added Gabelmann: “It’s up to Ottawa to draft a better law and discussions are ongoing on that subject.”

Blackmore contends that all the negative publicity gives the public a skewed image of his community. In addition to his duties as bishop, Blackmore is the head of J. R. Blackmore & Sons, which employs over 40 community members. It runs a supermarket, a Laundromat and a mill that fashions poles from timber salvaged from forest fires. And he downplays the perception of Bountiful as a strictly controlled commune, noting that its members live in separate homes and in many cases have jobs elsewhere. Of the recent convictions, Blackmore complains that the entire community is being tarred with the same brush—in much the same way, he says, that all Catholic priests are blamed for the sexual misconduct of a few.

Up until last month, the women of Bountiful were forbidden to speak to the media. But in an attempt to counter the latest round of alle gâtions, that ban has now been lifted. In a group interview with more than 30 female members of the sect, the women repeatedly told Maclean’s how happy they were with their lifestyle. Memory Oler, first wife of Bountiful co-founder Dalmin Oler, defended polygamy as “God-given, and biblically given.” The women, she added, “are free to choose who they want to marry. And if our husband tells us to do something wrong, we do not do it.” Joanne Blackmore, a primary schoolteacher— and the bishop’s niece—argued that life in Bountiful is wholesome compared with life outside the colony. Blackmore, who earned her teaching certificate at a nearby community college, recalled that her classmates “were always asking me out drinking. It was the only way they knew to have a good time.”

The women have also written a draft statement that they intend to circulate to politicians in Victoria and Ottawa. In it, they claim that theirs is a society free of “substance abuse, and runaways,” where family values are taught and every child is loved. It is an idyllic description—and one that stands in as sharp contrast to the accounts of the sect’s critics as the jagged cliffs of the Purcell Mountains that loom over the valley dwellers of Bountiful.

CANADA

STEVE WEATHERBE