Winnipeg -- Tired of living under the dark cloud of decades-old claims of abuse, a group of wives from a polygamous commune in British Columbia travelled to Winnipeg on Friday to pledge their commitment to protect their children from exploitation.
Fifteen women from the fundamentalist Mormon community in Bountiful, B.C., surprised a roundtable discussion on child brides and sexual exploitation within polygamy by enthusiastically supporting a proposal to raise the age of sexual consent.
The women said changing the federal legislation to make 16 the age of consent from the current age of 14 would give them an edge when dealing with wilful daughters determined to marry earlier against their family's wishes.
"It will really help us a lot," said Marlene Palmer, a mother of six children who is married to a man who has taken several wives.
"Come on, children are children. I know as a mother with younger girls I encourage my girls not to get married too young."
Palmer told the group, which included police, teachers and child rights advocates, that only about 25 per cent of the community's men have more than one wife.
And she said the age difference between the couples is not as extreme as many Canadians may believe.
"Fifteen-year-olds don't marry 70-year-old men, that is not common practice," said Palmer.
"When our 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds get married, it's usually to a young person of their choice and he'll be 20, 21, 22 -- that's more the norm."
No charges have been laid in the Interior B.C. community.
Last summer, B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant announced the start of an RCMP investigation into allegations of child abuse, forcible marriage and sexual exploitation.
Other legal options include charging community members with polygamy, a Criminal Code offence. Some have speculated that move could prompt a constitutional challenge on religious grounds.
RCMP Cpl. Anthony Choy said the investigation is still ongoing but refused to comment further.
A woman who fled Bountiful in 1988 because she and her children were allegedly sexually abused in the community said she was caught off guard by the group's support for blocking child marriages.
"I think it's a very astounding statement on their part," said Debbie Palmer, who at 15 was assigned to be the sixth wife of the same 55-year-old man Marlene Palmer had wed.
"I've got documents from sermons that were preached in 2000 and 2001 that were urging the girls to get married as quickly as possible because they needed to belong to a husband before the end of the world came."
Palmer, who has co-authored a book about her experience, acknowledged the women who travelled to Winnipeg are among a relatively more liberal group that broke away from the main Mormon splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The legal age for marriage differs from province to province.
The age for sexual consent, however, falls under federal jurisdiction and is currently 14.
The federal Liberals have tabled an amendment that would keep the age 14, but would give judges the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether someone between 14 and 18 is being exploited.
Organizers of the conference, including Beyond Borders and Child Find, say the amendment is too vague and the law should apply to everyone equally.
"The Criminal Code is not selective," said Rosalind Prober, a lawyer with Beyond Borders.
She said the problem in polygamous communities is "compliant victimization" fuelled by poor parenting that raises children to believe they need to be married at an early age.