Human smuggling denied

Critic charges girls trafficked as breeding stock

Calgary Sun/August 2, 2004
By Mike D'Amour

Creston, B.C. -- The polygamous community of Bountiful has existed in near anonymity for decades. But a looming law enforcement investigation has thrust the community into the public spotlight. Forced marriages between young girls and much older men is one of the complaints investigators will explore.

The men of Bountiful make no bones about the fact they're in polygamous relationships and at least one admits having nearly 20 wives. But with nearly everyone in the religious community a descendant of half a dozen men, where do the new brides come from?

Reporter Mike D'Amour and photographer Carlos Amat were on scene to find some answers in this final installment of a Sun investigation.

There's been a rumour circulating around these parts for some time that the men of Bountiful are smuggling their wives-to-be in from the U.S. branch of their religion.

"I've heard the very same thing," said Joe Snopek, the mayor of Creston, a town of about 5,000 that lies just north of Bountiful.

"Because Bountiful bought adjoining land in Canada and the U.S., it's rumoured the girls would be brought into Canada late at night, but that's slowed down because of tightened border security since (the 911 terrorist attacks)."

The former leader of Bountiful, Winston Blackmore, denied the allegations.

"That's just another rumour started by busybodies," he told the Sun.

Creston Mounties say they know nothing of human smuggling in their community, but Snopek said they are indeed looking for illegal aliens.

"In the basement of the RCMP building, two officers are assigned to the border," the mayor said.

"They're mainly looking for drugs, but they also keep an eye out for young people crossing the border to get into Bountiful."

However, the current problem facing the men of Bountiful isn't getting women in, but hanging onto the ones they have.

In the last few years, several women have fled the community and tell tales of oppressive lives and abuse in Bountiful.

The most recognizable of the women is Debbie Palmer, a woman with eight chil- dren from three assigned marriages, who fled the polygamous community in 1988.

Her allegations of the sexual exploitation of children and forced marriages -- and a groundswell of public concern -- prompted B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant to finally call for an investigation into the commune.

Palmer became a crusader against what she reportedly called "illegal cross-border trade in Canadian and American female children for sexual and breeding purposes."

Her missive to Plant, mailed in May, contained her allegations of being a sexual-abuse victim while living in Bountiful.

Her claims have been bolstered by similar complaints of eight other women from the insular community in the East Kootenays.

But until recently, Palmer was nearly alone in her public fight to help women escape Bountiful.

"Everyone here gives the impression by their silence that everything is all right here," said Audrey Vance, co-chair of the Creston-based Altering Destiny Through Education Group, an organization dedicated to helping Bountiful women find lives off the commune.

"I was the same way, but not anymore -- I've learned so much in the past six months and I won't be complacent," the 72-year-old said.

Bountiful is a community of about 1,000 Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) -- a breakaway Mormon sect -- who live on about 320 hectares of land just south of Creston, about 540 km southwest of Calgary.

All children there go to one of two private schools that are under the direction of the FLDS.

"Under that religion, the girls are taught to have babies as soon as they can and the boys go to work as soon as they can," Vance said.

"And with the Grade 9 or Grade 10 education the kids of Bountiful get, that's not good enough to get a job outside the community," the 72-year-old said.

And a poor education is part of the reason the residents, especially the women, are unable to break away from the polygamous community, she said.

Part of a larger plan of Vance's group is to lobby B.C.'s education minister in an attempt to put the Bountiful schools under the direction of the provincial government.

"We just think if the women were educated, they'd be able to make better choices about their future," Vance said.

But Bountiful resident Ruth Palmer said the notion women in her community aren't educated is bunk.

"People here can get as much education as they want," the 42-year-old said.

"We already have professional women here, they work as nurses, teachers and in other professions," she said.

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