Vancouver -- They like to think they do a good job protecting women's rights and fighting paedophilia. Canadians would not be so smug if they knew of the dirty little secret in the Creston Valley, in south-eastern British Columbia. For half a century, a hotbed of polygamy has quietly flourished there in a commune called Bountiful. It is run by a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church, in successful defiance of the law.
Bountiful is no secret to local people, some of whom enjoy its business. Nor is it to the province's police and social workers. It is known to British Columbia's top law-enforcement officer, the attorney-general. His office was first made aware of concerns about Bountiful more than a decade ago. But the provincial government has felt constrained by an untested legal opinion that Canada's law banning polygamy was unconstitutional.
Bountiful claims allegiance to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Based in Utah, this dissenting Mormon sect teaches that men must have three or more wives and as many children as possible to enter heaven. The role of women and girls is to serve men. If women disobey men, their souls will burn in hell for eternity.
The commune was quietly set up in 1947, after a few men excommunicated by the mainstream Mormon Church in Utah (which banned polygamy in 1890) moved north. Today the 1,000-odd residents are almost all the progeny of half-a-dozen men. The place is dominated by the "bishop," James Oler, and by his deposed predecessor, Winston Blackmore, who now heads a splinter group.
Both groups run schools. These receive grants from the provincial government totalling more than C$600,000 ($450,000) a year. Yet critics say they provide minimal education, preparing boys only to work on Bountiful's farms and forests and girls to be "young brides and mothers." Women who have fled tell of girls as young as 13 being married off to polygamous men three times their age; of babies born to girls of 14 and 15; and of under-age girls being brought in from similar American communes for arranged marriages and to serve as "breeding stock."
"A grotesque and blatant infringement of human rights,"says Jancis Andrews, a women's-rights advocate. Geoff Plant, the attorney-general has plainly been embarrassed by years of criticism of his inaction. His inertia stems from a case in 1992 when police recommended that two Bountiful men be charged with polygamy. But the crown attorney's office declined to do so, following legal advice that conviction was impossible because the guarantee of religious freedom in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms renders the law against polygamy unconstitutional.
That opinion is disputed. The federal justice ministry believes the law to be constitutionally sound, and has offered to throw its weight behind any prosecution. Now it may have a chance to do so. In May, nine women fugitives from Bountiful filed a complaint with Mr Plant's office alleging polygamy and sexual abuse of girls as young as 13. Mr Plant says that he has "indicated" to the police that "the existence of a constitutional opinion on the enforceability of [the law on polygamy] is not a reason for the entire public criminal-justice system to sit on its hands."The police are now at work. The hunters of Bountiful's dubious practices are closing in.