Polygamist communities sent teens to work long hours for low pay

Montreal Gazette/September 25, 2011

EDMONTON — Truman Oler was 17 when he made the long drive to Sundre from his home in Bountiful, B.C., the base of Canada's controversial polygamous sect, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints.

Like dozens of other FLDS teenage boys, Oler left high school after Grade 9 and, at 15, he was working full time for a company owned by Bountiful's bishop, Winston Blackmore.

Blackmore, who eventually had more than 20 wives, sent Oler to Alberta to work in his post and pole mill in Sundre, a small town southwest of Red Deer near the foothills. That was the late 1990s. The Sundre site, first owned by J.R. Blackmore and Sons and later by Oler Bros. Contracting, was still operating in Sundre until the spring of 2009.

Documents obtained by The Journal show the FLDS company did business with dozens of Alberta companies by the time it folded. Court documents also raised questions about working conditions and pay in the FLDS company.

Oler, like his fellow FLDS workers, believed if he obeyed the rules, paid his tithes and followed the bishop's teachings, he might be assigned a wife, a place to build a home, perhaps another wife. That was the promise.

Oler was determined to be faithful. "I just never looked for a way out," he recalled in a recent interview with The Journal.

At first, the crew worked day and night shifts making fence posts for a large local mill. Later, Blackmore and Sons got into logging on contract and workers cut timber and de-limbed trees.

For a while, the young men drove the six hours back to Bountiful twice a month to attend church meetings and see family, recalled Truman, whose father had six wives and 47 children. Truman Oler was 13th of the 15 children by his mother, Memory Oler.

While the plight of teenage brides has garnered much attention in the story of Bountiful, there is another dark side to the polygamous sect — the young men and women used as cheap labour for FLDS companies whose futures were totally dependent on a bishop's decisions.

Dozens of these young people came to the Sundre area to work for Blackmore and Sons, and later Oler Bros., businesses that helped support the polygamous community back in British Columbia.

The story of the young people in Alberta, as Oler's account reveals, is one of low pay, long hours and isolation. Occasionally, a young man would be kicked out for breaking the rules; some would leave on their own. Known as "lost boys," they were left to cope with no family support, no financial support and little education.

Experts who gave evidence last winter in a B.C. court reference on the legality of polygamy noted that surplus young men are often sent away to work to reduce the competition for young wives desired by the older men — as well as provide cheap labour.

A judgment is expected soon in the B.C. court reference that will determine the legality of polygamy under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

From the highway heading west of Sundre, the FLDS company site looked much like any other small industrial site in the busy rural county. A large rectangular Quonset building used as a repair shop, a few trucks, an old house, a double-wide trailer, all crowded onto the gravel yard.

Oler says he earned $60 every two weeks at first and that went up to $100 every two weeks when he turned 18 — well below minimum wage. When he worked for Blackmore and Sons, sometimes he was issued a cheque which he was asked to sign and hand back to his boss. He says he never saw the cash. When Oler Brothers took over, his pay went up.

Oler says he was provided with safety gear, hard hat and boots, when he made fence posts at the large nearby sawmill. He also noted safety checks at the mill.

Oler also noticed young men from FLDS communities in Utah turned up at the site — rebellious teenagers sent on a "reform mission."

A strict regimen of long hours, hard work, no pay and teachings from righteous older men was supposed to put them back on track, said Oler.

In October 1997, another unusual new arrival — 14-year-old Teressa Wall, from Salt Lake City — turned up. When Utah FLDS leaders told her it was time for her to marry, she refused. She was banned from her family home and sent to Bountiful until she would repent.

Shortly after, Bountiful's bishop, Winston Blackmore, sent Wall to work at the Sundre mill, Wall said in her video testimony to the B.C. court.

Dressed in her long, pioneer-style dress, Wall often worked the night shift. While the others had warm clothes, she worked in winter in tennis shoes and an old coat and worked in the rain with no raincoat.

Her job was throwing logs onto the "peeler" machine or taking the de-barked, cut logs off the other end of the machine and stacking them, she said.

She was often told: "You could end all this if you would just get married," she noted. For nearly two years, she refused and continued working along with two of her brothers from Utah.

Oler recalled seeing her at the mill, but they never spoke.

One day, with no warning, Wall was taken back to Creston where the bishop, Winston Blackmore, again pressured her to get married. Dispirited by then, she agreed to do so. She was 17.

Wall then returned to Sundre with her new husband, who worked at the mill while she took on the job of crew cook, according to her testimony.

In the mid-2000s, Blackmore's operation was taken over by Oler Bros, which was owned by Truman Oler's elder brothers. They started logging. In 2006, the company had a crew of more than 40 workers, according to government documents. Oler said the wages went up to $400 to $500 a month and later $800.

In April 2009, Oler Bros. declared bankruptcy.

That year, Bountiful was under growing pressure from the B.C. government. Truman Oler's brother, Jim, bishop at the time, was charged with polygamy — but the charges were later stayed.

Bankruptcy records give a glimpse into just how far FLDS business connections had grown over the years in Alberta. When the company went under, it had debts of $4.8 million and assets of $2.9 million

Dozens of companies were listed as creditors, in Sundre, the Rocky Mountain House area and Edmonton and Calgary, and into Ontario and B.C.

Documents show Oler Bros. borrowed more than $2 million for vehicles, trucks, trailers, cars, including $1.4 million for "eight pieces of equipment from John Deere" based in Burlington, Ont.

The list of 15 secured creditors included ATB, (with a claim of $90,000), Caterpillar Financial Services, ($280,000 claim), Daimler Chrysler ($900,000 for six trucks and trailers) a Red Deer company Haukendal Enterprise (claim of $364,904 for office furniture) and Equirex Vehicle leasing (a claim of $340,000 for three trucks).

More than 100 companies are listed as unsecured creditors. The claimants include banks, tire companies, lumber companies, auto repair shops and United Farmers of Alberta ($15,000 claim).

In his early 20s, Truman Oler started to push for better wages after he learned what other forestry workers in the area were paid. Eventually, the wage was raised to $15 an hour — still lower than the going rate in the industry. FLDS bosses justified the low pay, says Oler, by pointing out that they provided free room and board, and promised to buy vehicles for the workers — which didn't always happen.

Jim Oler, of Oler Bros., could not be reached for comment.

Winston Blackmore would say that low wages allowed everyone to have a job. In a 2006 documentary he said: "We compromised on wages — even I did. But why we compromised on wages is that everyone was employed."

Truman Oler had no thought about taking his complaint to provincial labour authorities.

But word of the substandard working conditions and undocumented American workers did finally leak out.

Nancy Mereska lives near Two Hills east of Edmonton. She left the mainstream Mormon church in 1985 and went to university for a degree in psychology and women's studies.

In 2003, she saw a television documentary on polygamy in Bountiful. Troubled by what she saw, she started a small advocacy organization, Stop Polygamy Canada.

In the spring of 2004, Mereska learned of working conditions at the FLDS operations around Sundre. From reports she received, it sounded little better than a slave labour camp, she said in an interview — young men working for little pay, with little training, on dangerous equipment in a dangerous industry — and no way out.

To Mereska, that was unacceptable in Alberta where labour standards were in place to protect workers, especially young people, from unfair practices. So she wrote to then employment minister Clint Dunford, asking for an investigation.

The letter she got back in September 2004 was a big disappointment, she says. The department declined to investigate because she provided no specific evidence of safety violations. The letter also noted Alberta labour law allows teens at age 15 to work in logging though it is deemed one of the more dangerous occupations.

The letter also appeared to justify any wages below minimum wage as if the FLDS company was a family business.

"Alberta's employment standards do not prohibit a father from paying his sons a stipend rather than a wage," noted the letter from civil servant Walter Baer, then director of compliance for workplace health and safety and employment standards.

"I phoned Baer's office, got his voice mail and said: 'What if a man has 50 sons?'

"He did not return my call."

"I was furious," said Mereska. "I knew the terrible conditions under which these kids were working and no one would do anything about it."

In 2005, a year later, Oler Bros. Contracting turns up for the first time in provincial occupational health and safety records. The record shows Oler Bros. had implemented a government-audited safety program and it was in place in 2005-07.

"This means someone must have visited the site," said Janice Schroeder, communications officer for Alberta Employment and Immigration.

The records also show two reported injuries, one in 2006 and one in 2008, the year the work crew officially dropped to 22 people.

Mereska's 2004 complaint about low wages was likely not pursued because it was not specific, said Schroeder.

Under provincial labour standards, only family farms are exempt from minimum wage requirements. The exemption does not apply to sawmills, she added.

In 2009, another concerned citizen raised a red flag. Sandy McIntosh, an Edmonton-based specialist in occupation health and safety, also raised questions about possible violations of labour standards in the FLDS company. The case of Teressa Wall, working there at 14, is particularly disturbing, he said.

She worked with hazardous machinery in a long dress without proper weather protection, according to her testimony. Yet safety regulations require workers to wear hard-toed boots, a hard hat, gloves and overalls, he said.

"Young people were there working for nothing, some were sent from U.S.," said McIntosh in an interview. "How did they get across the border?"

"Why do we let one group break the rules so easily?"

For the province to treat this business as if it was a family farm is inappropriate, he added. "It is an industrial operation."

It's pretty clear the money made in Alberta went to support polygamous communities in the B.C. and U.S., McIntosh added.

"Alberta was in the chain and we don't want to acknowledge it. It's happening in our society, we should have an open discussion about it."

It's late August and a busy Tuesday night in the cosy restaurant in the old Sundre Hotel. The specials on offer, a steak sandwich or sweet and sour pork, are in big demand. The kitchen serves up a very tasty bowl of steaming wonton soup.

Seated at the counter, Dennis Herbert tucks into a plate of fried chicken and fries, gravy on the side. Born and raised in this small town, he's over 60 and still driving truck.

He remembers when the Bountiful people started to show up. A few lived in the trailer court on the north side of town.

"Some lived behind me in the trailer park. They didn't seem to be any trouble, just different," said Herbert.

The women in their long dresses were noticeable walking into town from the work site near McDougall Flats, five kilometres west of town, he said. Sometimes they had young children with them.

The town settled into a "live and let live" attitude with the small, hard-working group of FLDS people. The newcomers were polite, kept to themselves. Their small business all seemed temporary. If anybody had concerns, it seems, they kept them to themselves.

Myron Thompson, a town councillor in Sundre, was a Reform MP when Bountiful people moved in. There wasn't too much talk about them, he said.

"No one came to me with any concerns," Thompson added. Besides, in his view, any issues that might arise would be "left to provincial authorities."

The FLDS site was located in the County of Mountain View, but the county had little to do with it, says former councillor Gerald Ingeveld. The company took an existing business so the county had no reason to get involved, he said.

There was no sign the small group was trying to set up a bigger community, he said, it was just a few people living in old trailers. "It didn't look like a long-term operation," he added.

Besides, there is freedom of movement in Canada, he added, so what could anyone do if the FLDS workers moved into Alberta to do business, he added.

"We do have laws about how young brides can be, but we saw no evidence of those issues here," said Ingeveld.

While the sprawling rural county is a bit of a Bible belt, it has also seen its share of folks with different beliefs, he said. There is a nudist colony, and years ago, there were cross-burning racists in Caroline, he added.

And the Moonies once made a brief appearance.

Al Kemmere was reeve of Mountain View County in 2004. He lives about 45 kilometres from Sundre.

The county doesn't regulate workers' wages or health and safety conditions, so it would not have thought to investigate working conditions, he added. That is a provincial responsibility.

"I think the community saw them being there on a temporary basis and that was the basis of their passive approach.

"If their beliefs were breaking the law, then there are mechanisms of society to look after that."

University of Alberta professor Steve Kent, an expert in cults, says there's no easy way for a community to deal with a church like FLDS that arrives on its doorstep, especially if its members are well behaved.

"It didn't seem there were any public issues with the FLDS people and, absent those issues, it's difficult to know what a local community could do," said Kent, who also testified at the B.C court reference last spring.

It's not the job of a county or town council to enforce criminal laws, said Kent.

The provincial government, however, should have kept a closer eye, given the reports of poor working conditions and low pay, he said.

"It's very clear the government has a responsibility to monitor labour conditions including proper payment for a day's work."

"The province let these young people down," said Kent.

In some countries, governments take a more active role in monitoring cults, says Kent. But in Canada, it's left up to private groups like Stop Polygamy Canada.

Truman Oler was still working in Sundre, in his early 20s, when he started to think about leaving the church. He was tired of low pay, of having no place of his own, no possessions and no time for anything much but work — tired of coming up with $1,000 a month in tithes to then bishop Warren Jeffs. (His mother often subsidized his tithes.)

In 2002, he quietly stopped paying his tithes. His brother noticed and threatened to fire him unless he started paying again. "I just said I didn't need the church any more," said Oler.

"If you leave, you go with nothing but the shirt on your back," he said. "And you are told that you'll never see your family again."

Oler rejects the term "lost boys" — that's what the FLDS likes to think of those who leave the church.

Still, adjusting to life outside is not easy, says Oler.

That is backed up by evidence presented by Timothy Dunfield, a University of Alberta doctoral student. In his affidavit to the B.C. court, Dunfield described the impact of polygamy on young men.

To reduce the competition for teenage brides, young men are forced out. Or they have to follow a complex rules to qualify to get a wife, and in the end, it's a "political decision" whether they are deemed worthy.

After years of indoctrination, the young men "are ill-equipped" for life on the outside, according to his evidence. They have to learn how to make decisions, handle money, make friends or find employment. Cut off from the emotional and financial support of their families, they often end up in poverty and isolated.

U.S. authorities estimate about 1,000 young men, some as young as 13, have been expelled from FLDS communities south of the border, according to Dunfield's brief.

Oler has moved on, built a new life, taken training as a heavy-duty mechanic.

But his battle with the church goes on.

Winston Blackmore is being sued for tax evasion. He is trying to get former employees like Oler to pay part of the back taxes. (Oler already paid back taxes on his earnings.)

Although the Oler mill site has been sold to another company, Oler also says he is sure other FLDS companies are still operating in Alberta.

Occasionally, Oler goes back to Bountiful to visit his mother, but it's painful.

"If I show up she will come out of the house to talk to me, but I am not welcomed into the house," Oler wrote in his court evidence.

"I dream of going down to the place where I was raised and made to feel welcome and treated like a family member and not some stranger who has been caught stealing something. Maybe some day things will change."

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