Tearful testimony on polygamy reveals much

The Vancouver Sun/January 22, 2011

Truman Oler wept for himself, his family and for all of the lost hopes, dreams and aspirations of the people he left behind in Bountiful, B.C. only a few years ago.

In the most emotional and compelling testimony so far in the constitutional reference case to determine the validity of Canada's polygamy law, the 29-year-old spoke Tuesday of growing up in a family with six mothers and 47 children, his mother's heartbreaking disavowal of him after he left and about how little he knew and how frightened he was of the world outside the fundamentalist Mormon enclave.

But his most powerful words came haltingly when he spoke about why he had chosen to testify.

Oler told B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman that from birth, he was told there were only two choices: Conform to what the religious leaders taught or be damned to hell.

Every day for two hours, children were taught religion at the government-funded, independent school. Reading lessons came from religious texts.

Even though his mother, Memory, still teaches at the school, she never encouraged her youngest of 15 children to finish high school. Oler doesn't recall even knowing there was such a thing as college.

Like the other boys, Oler knew he'd likely spend his life making fence posts at a company owned by Winston Blackmore, who was then bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which split from the mainstream church 120 years ago.

The joke at school was that the boys only needed to know how to count to 175 - the number of poles in a bundle.

Oler - who is now a certified heavy-duty mechanic - left school at 16 after his father had died and Blackmore refused to allow him to play on a minor hockey team.

Oler said he doesn't understand why FLDS men have so many children. They're often away working. Oler recounted how one of his brothers - who has three wives "and I don't know how many children" - went home and picked up his baby. The baby cried. He didn't recognize his father.

"I don't know what I'd do if I went home, picked up my boy and if he didn't know who I was. I just couldn't handle it," said Oler, who is now married with two little boys.

"I can't think of nothing more important than spending time with my children. It's the most important thing in the world to Maine"

Yet even when FLDS men are at home, Oler said they don't spend time with children. That's women's work.

When Oler was 19, his full brother, James, had replaced Blackmore as FLDS bishop and talked to Truman about having a wife assigned to him. But Truman wanted to choose his partner. He wanted his own house, his own car. "I basically wanted to be my own person."

His grandmother, Lorna Blackmore - who had left Bountiful years earlier - was a major factor in Oler's decision to go.

"Grandma Lorna told me no matter what I did, I was always going to have a place to come back to."

But to his mother, Oler might better have been dead.

She told him about having had a stillborn baby "in a way that made me feel that she wished I was that child," he said quietly. "I wish she didn't have to feel that way about Maine I thought she would be proud of me going back to school."

The people in Bountiful are "very good-hearted people; some of the best people you could meet," Oler responded when asked why he agreed to testify. "But they just don't know what they're doing and the harm they are doing and they do it all in the name of God. To take young boys' and young girls' ability to think away from them?"

Oler noted that Blackmore tells people in Bountiful about how Canada's Charter of Rights protects their religious practise of polygamy. But it's the only right that they know about and the only one Oler knew about until he recently found a copy of the charter on the Internet.

"I read through the charter," he said. "And in teaching that one religion, they are taking away all of the other rights of the charter."

After Oler's two gruelling hours of testimony, FLDS lawyer Robert Wickett had no questions for him.

And, not only did George Macintosh - the court-appointed amicus curiae - have no questions, he took the unusual step of thanking Oler for testifying.

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