Former Bountiful resident describes 'cold,' 'isolated' childhood

The Canadian Press/January 17, 2011

Vancouver - In the late 1940s, Harold Blackmore bought 30 hectares of isolated, rural property in southeastern British Columbia and set up a small commune where he and other fundamentalist Mormons could live what they considered the original teachings of prophet Joseph Smith, including polygamy.

The large parcel of farmland would later become known as Bountiful, the now-infamous community at the heart of a B.C. constitutional court case, where today about a 1,000 residents follow a brand of Mormonism long rejected by the mainstream church.

But two decades after settling there, Blackmore's daughter told the court Monday, he renounced the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, which had taken control of the community. Then living in a sister community in the United States, Blackmore left with his two wives and their children.

"He was a devout man, he was a very religious man, and he got faced with so many disappointments when it came to how they (the church) lived their lives and destroyed the lives of other people," his daughter, Brenda Jensen, testified Monday at the hearings examining the constitutionality of Canada's law against polygamy.

"He did come to such a bitter realization that he had made a terrible mistake."

Jensen, now in her late 50s, said Blackmore and his first wife were devout Mormons, which led them to read about the church's early teachings, including the sanctioning of polygamy.

She said Blackmore convinced his wife, Gwen, to allow another women to enter the family. Blackmore's second wife was Gwen's sister, Florence, who was Jensen's mother.

They lived in Bountiful with several other polygamous families and eventually linked themselves to an American group of fundamentalist Mormons from an area known as Short Creek — now the twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

Jensen described a childhood of abuse and control, which she compared to the dystopian world portrayed in George Orwell's book "Animal Farm."

The community preached equality, where residents would pool resources and distribute them evenly, but she said in reality some residents were favoured, like the pigs in Orwell's book.

Children in the FLDS were expected to be completely obedient, and violence was the preferred tool for compliance.

Marriages were arranged, interaction with outsiders was forbidden and children were frequently shipped to and from the U.S. to work or marry, she said.

"It was cold, it was lonely, isolated, hopeless," said Jensen, who now lives in St. George, Utah, and runs the Hope Organization for people who've suffered abuse in polygamous families.

"The priesthood insisted we be empty vessels and disposable for their use at any time. We were to have no pre-conceived emotions, ideas, dreams, thoughts. And in my case, when my time came to be assigned (for marriage), the priesthood would get a revelation from God and assign me to a worthy man. ... I had no control over who that would be."

When she was 14, the church ordered Jensen's family to move to Colorado City. Blackmore ran a construction business, and the FLDS needed help building homes.

By then, the FLDS had full control and ownership of Bountiful, and Jensen said the land no longer belonged to Blackmore. What they found in Colorado City was a life more restrictive than Bountiful, particularly for women and girls.

Jensen said her father became disillusioned as he watched the church leadership carve up families and barter girls for marriage.

When Jensen was to be married to a man with a reputation for violence, her father did something remarkable: he told her she didn't have to.

"The happiest words I have ever heard in my life," she said. "He actually would back me and wouldn't make me go through that horrendous experience. He wouldn't force me into slavery."

By 1968, when Jensen was 17, she said her father had enough. The family left the FLDS for good.

They ended up in the nearby community of La Verkin, Utah, and renounced the beliefs that gave rise to Bountiful two decades earlier.

"We left alone, we left with nothing," she said.

"He (no longer) believed in the prophet Joseph Smith, and he did not believe in Mormonism. My parents stayed together out of the commitment they made together. My dad did believe polygamy was a way of life that could be lived and run for the betterment of everybody, but it didn't work that way."

The constitutional case was prompted by the failed prosecution in 2009 of Bountiful's two current leaders.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with one count of polygamy. Those charges were later thrown out for technical legal reasons.

The case is expected to hear evidence for the rest of the month, including from women currently living in Bountiful, with closing arguments scheduled for the spring.

Legal experts have predicted the case will ultimately end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.

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