Making a break from Bountiful

Refugees from B.C.'s polygamous group find life outside is rewarding, but also a challenge, writes Jane Armstrong

Globe and Mail (Canada)/April 9, 2005

Ray Blackmore has made quite a splash in this rough-and-tumble logging town in British Columbia's Kootenay Mountains. At 20, he's the proud owner of a $30,000 pickup truck, a 1995 Camaro with a Corvette engine and a prized Yamaha dirt bike, symbols of his newly won freedom.

"It's better than drinking," he says of his passion for "catching air" on his dirt bike. "As long as you got a ramp, you can get high."

His personal life is also soaring. He's had three girlfriends in the two years since he left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect that broke away from the Mormon Church and has a colony in Bountiful, B.C., Canada's only polygamous community.

In Bountiful, dating is forbidden and the plural marriages are arranged. For Mr. Blackmore, who says he can barely manage one woman in his life at a time, life on the outside has been "very, very good."

But there have been bumps in his journey from FLDS member to freethinking Canadian twentysomething. When Mr. Blackmore tells people he's from Bountiful, many simply gape. His current girlfriend's mother has urged her daughter to break off the romance.

"She's afraid I'm going to take her back there and make her part of a harem." The gangly young man with the friendly eyes said he got so sick of the wide-eyed reaction, he got a tattoo: "Judge not, lest ye be judged," it says in bold, blue letters.

Mr. Blackmore is among a growing number of young people, mostly men, who are leaving Bountiful. Most settled in Cranbrook, a 90-minute drive up the highway from their hometown, and in Sundre, a small community 70 kilometres northwest of Calgary.

South of the border, young American men are also leaving their FLDS community in the wake of a bitter power struggle in the leadership of the Utah-based fundamentalist church.

They've been dubbed the "lost boys," an apt moniker for young people thrust into a modern world with little education and few marketable skills. They were raised in a belief system at odds with every criminal code in North America. One of their beliefs requires men to take at least three wives in order to get to heaven.

In British Columbia, Bountiful has been the subject of a police probe and there have been allegations of incest, sexual abuse, fraud and trafficking of brides across the U.S. border.

Exiles from Bountiful have been skittish about going public with their stories. All have huge families inside the sect and fear loved ones could face repercussions.

However, a group of young people in Cranbrook and Sundre agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail because they said they want to set the record straight about life in Bountiful.

Not everything about the FLDS is bad, they said. In fact, all spoke wistfully of idyllic childhoods spent playing outdoors with hordes of siblings. People in their communities value hard work and respect their parents, two qualities they say are lacking among the young people they meet on the outside.

They left Bountiful for a variety of reasons. Some, like Daniel Blackmore, Ray's older brother, and Daniel's wife, Esther, couldn't stomach the prospect of plural marriages. Ray said he couldn't stand being told how to live his life.

But the transition from a protected religious colony to a secular, modern society has been a jarring, confusing, and at times lonely experience.

Life on the outside, with its array of choices, has overwhelmed some; they were raised in large families with strict codes of conduct dictating everything from the way they dressed to how long they would attend school.

The biggest hurdle facing the young people who've left Bountiful is their lack of education. None has a high-school diploma. Many dropped out in Grade 9. Academia is not encouraged in FLDS communities, including Bountiful, where the high school goes only to Grade 10. The boys were pulled out to work; the girls to marry.

Of the Bountiful exiles interviewed, only Esther Blackmore is attempting to get a high school diploma. She hopes to become a dental hygienist.

It's Good Friday afternoon in Sundre, a windy town of about 2,000 people in the Foothills of Alberta's Rocky Mountains.

The Oler men, formerly of Bountiful, have returned from the gym and are getting ready to party. Tonight they're going drinking at the local hotel. On Saturday, the plan is to drive to Red Deer to look at dirt bikes. On Easter Sunday, they'll barbecue steaks on the back deck.

Five of them live in a rented four-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac of mobile homes. The youngest, 17-year-old Wendel, sleeps on the couch. They work for Ken Oler, an FLDS member from Bountiful who operates a sawmill just west of town. One of the men is Ken's son. Two are the younger brothers of Jim Oler, the new Bountiful leader. All are related.

The Olers are less talkative than Ray Blackmore, and angrier. Some have been instructed by their parents not to return to Bountiful. Still, 18-year-old Frank sent his mother flowers on Valentine's Day.

At home they're known as "apostates," the name given to group members who leave the church. Among the faithful, apostates are considered more wicked that mainstream Mormons and non-Mormons.

The sect's Utah-based leader, Warren Jeffs, has been quoted as saying: "Apostates are literally tools of the devil." But threats of damnation have only deepened their defiance. "Am I going to hell?" Wendel asks, with a bitter laugh. "Even if I thought that, where is hell? I don't know."

Adds Frank: "My mother says I still have a chance. I can do better. But what's better? My life is good here. There [in Bountiful] they just tell you what you should be doing. You got to work your ass off and they tell you what your life is."

Like the Blackmores, the Olers want no part of polygamy or assigned marriages. "I don't want someone to give me a wife," 23-year-old Truman says. "Where's the challenge in that?"

Wendel left home at 15; Frank was just 14. For a year, before moving to Sundre, he lived with the parents of a Creston girl he met at a hockey game.

Life outside Bountiful was scary at first, Truman said. But the Oler men have banded together and look after each other. They split the rent and bills. And a few months ago, they bought two Rottweiller pups, Zip and Zoey.

"We're family," Truman says.

The founders of Bountiful couldn't have found a more picturesque spot to set up a cloistered colony away from the prying eyes of outsiders. Situated in a valley at the base of B.C.'s Skimmerhorn Mountains, its fertile orchards yield a bounty of fruits and vegetables. Logging has provided jobs for hundreds of men over the decades.

The half-dozen men who settled Bountiful nearly 60 years ago were looking for privacy to practise plural marriage, which had led to their excommunication from the mainstream Mormon church.

FLDS is based in Colorado City, a border town straddling Utah and Arizona, where it's estimated about 10,000 polygamists live. Bountiful is the largest FLDS colony outside Colorado City and residents shuttle back and forth, especially young brides.

Today, Bountiful remains a quiet village dotted with massive motel-style homes and front yards brimming with children.

But all is not calm in Bountiful, or in its U.S. sister city. In 2002, Mr. Jeffs, the sect's new overall leader, drummed Bountiful's powerful bishop, Winston Blackmore, out of power and replaced him with Jim Oler.

The expulsion of Mr. Blackmore, who had ruled for nearly two decades, caused a split in the community, with nearly half the town siding with the deposed leader.

Bountiful's motto is "Keep sweet," which is repeated like a mantra among women. It means to keep the godly spirit. Critics say it's a tool wielded to ensure women obey their husbands.

It's a chilly March evening and Esther and Daniel Blackmore have finished dinner at their townhouse. It's modestly furnished; framed photos of their large families adorn every living room wall.

The couple live here with their three-year-old son, Reno, and Daniel's younger brother, Ray. Daniel, who declines to be interviewed, is chasing Reno around the living room while Ray strums an electric guitar.

Ben Blackmore, 25, a cousin and fellow Bountiful defector, arrives, planting himself on the couch. The group trades jokes and smiles. They say they have read articles about Bountiful that were inaccurate and hurtful. "They make us look like weirdos," Ray says curtly.

Apart from the unfavourable press, Bountiful exiles have another reason to distrust a journalist. From childhood, they are taught that outsiders are wicked people, put on Earth to tempt them from their faith. It's not a sentiment that can be switched off overnight.

They dislike the "lost boys" label and say it's demeaning. They're not lost, Ray says. They chose to leave. They work and pay taxes and are getting by.

Esther, a dark-haired 19-year-old, says she feels blessed by the way she was raised. She grew up in a "humungous" house with 15 bedrooms and seven bathrooms. Her father, who owned a stucco business and sold cars on the side, had three wives.

Her father's first wife had nine children; his second bore him 16. Her mother, the third wife, had another nine and died after giving birth to Esther, the youngest of the brood.

"I loved having that many kids around," she recalls. Yet for all their nostalgia, the young people say the church's fundamentalist teachings got harder to stomach when they reached their teens.

For girls, the fear is they will be assigned to a much older man as a second or third wife. "You dread that," Esther explains. "I wanted to be a first."

Now, she can't imagine her husband taking another wife."[Polygamy] just feels wrong to me now," Esther says. "It's like I ask the guys: 'How would you feel if it was turned around? Would you want your women to go off with other husbands?' Of course, they would say no."

Esther Blackmore still can't bring herself to wear a bathing suit. Back home in Utah, where she was raised, she swam fully clothed in her ankle-length, pioneer-style dresses and heavy undergarments, the standard uniform of females in FLDS communities. Last summer, on the beaches of B.C.'s Moyie Lake, she wore shorts and a T-shirt.

Since leaving Bountiful, getting dressed each day is a thrill. When she opens her closet, there's an array of options: low-cut jeans, short skirts, open-toed sandals. She's on her third hair colour - dark chestnut - in nearly two years.

She has no regrets. If anything, the outside world is far less scary than she imagined. "I found out there are a lot of good people in the world. That's not what we were taught."

However, she's often appalled at the behaviour of women her age. The first time she saw young men and women dancing in a Cranbrook bar, she was disgusted at the suggestive movements.

"The girls act so immature," says Esther, who became a mother at 16. "I didn't think it was possible to be so silly."

She adds: "I'm so grateful I was raised the way I was."

As a child, she liked the "Keep sweet" motto. She wanted to marry young and pestered her father and church leaders from the time she was 13. "I really, really wanted to get married," she recalls. "My dad said: 'You have to wait until you're 15.'."

She finally got her way and was assigned to Daniel in Bountiful. She was 15, he was 19. They were introduced at the wedding ceremony, which is not recognized by Canadian law. (The couple have since legalized their union in a civil ceremony.) Before the wedding, Winston Blackmore asked her: "Are you ready to be sweet?"

Asked why she was so determined to marry, Esther replies: "It was the year 2000 and we were told the world would end by 2000, so I wanted to experience married life before the world was destroyed."

Ben Blackmore was 23 when he left Bountiful. It caused a family rift so deep he's still trying to repair the damage. His wife, Suzanne, who remains deeply religious, fled to Utah with their three young children for seven months. His mother and four sisters shunned him.

Ben says he felt he had no choice but to leave. At Sunday church services, he would sit and brood. "I felt like I was lying to myself," the 25-year-old says. "I wanted to leave. But I didn't want to lose my children. I didn't want to lose my family."

Quitting the church was a pre-emptive move, he adds: "They were going to kick me out anyway."

Ben still struggles with his decision to leave. He misses the safety and camaraderie of life in Bountiful. He talks wistfully of his childhood.

More reserved than his two cousins, Ben has had a harder time making friends on the outside and prefers the company of the Bountiful group.

He says he's not a rebel by nature. Like his older brothers before him, he quit school in Grade 10 to work. At 19, he took a bride sent from Colorado City. Within three years, they had three children.

"I was really, really happy," Ben says, staring into his coffee mug during an interview at a Tim Hortons restaurant on Cranbrook's main street. He did not want to be interviewed at home because his wife didn't approve of him speaking to a reporter.

"Having kids, being right there when your child is born, there's nothing like it. I love my children. They teach me things. They've helped me to grow up."

After his wife left and took the children to her parents' home in Utah, Ben begged her to return. They reconciled last fall and moved to a house in Cranbrook, not far from Esther and Daniel.

Ben drives a logging truck. He would like to finish high school, but with four kids under the age of 6, he doesn't know where he'd find the time.

Ray Blackmore would like to be a police officer. He knows that won't happen unless he goes back to school, but feels he has lots of time. Right now, he wants to have a little fun. He has no regrets about leaving Bountiful; he only wishes people on the outside would show greater tolerance for him.

"As soon as I say my last name, people judge me," Ray said. "I want to say to them, 'Look, I'm a human like you.'"

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