Polygamists launch a PR offensive

Vancouver Sun/April 20, 2005
By Daphne Bramham

Creston -- They are taught from birth that they are God's most favoured people -- the only people who will be saved when the world ends and that that time is coming soon.

They are taught that the most sacred principle is plural marriage. But that means multiple wives for men and not multiple husbands for wives.

They are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- a breakaway sect of the Mormon church that practises polygamy openly in a little community they call Bountiful, a few kilometres down the road from this East Kootenay town.

And Tuesday night, one of their leaders, Winston Blackmore, planned to talk publicly at what he called a polygamy summit about their constitutional right to practise their religion openly and freely despite the Criminal Code. He claimed to have invited the attorneys-general from British Columbia, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Texas to come along. But none did. Neither did the B.C. Teachers' Federation nor Audrey Vance, co-chair of a local group called Altering Destiny Through Education, which opposes Bountiful and its teachings. Most of them never got an invitation.

It's all a bit surprising this whole summit thing, since Blackmore and the FLDS believe that all the rest of us -- apostates and Gentiles as we're called -- should be avoided, even lied to, to protect the sacred principle of polygamy.

But on Tuesday, Principal Richard Blackmore was standing on the step of the Mormon Hills School at lunch time, inviting journalists in to see what the taxpayer-funded school looks like.

The 126 pupils -- beautiful, mainly blond girls in long dresses with long hair and tow-headed, freckled boys in black jeans and long-sleeved shirts -- had an extra-long lunch hour in the sunshine to give them a chance to talk to reporters.

And talk these Grade 7s did, even though some of those talkers were very likely some of the same children who, last summer, screamed, sneered and yelled at photographer Ian Smith and me to get away, to leave them alone and not take their pictures.

On Tuesday, they posed, preened and mugged for the cluster of photographers and videographers.

Half-sisters Hannah and Sally Blackmore -- 13 and 12 -- talked about travelling the world after they finish college and are rich. Hannah wants to be a fashion designer. Sally wants to be reporter -- well, maybe, if it meant she could travel to Ireland.

A boy pipes up that he wants to be a rock star. A pilot, says another. Mechanic. Police officer.

But despite the summit and the newfound openness, the reality of life in Bountiful offends their dreams.

Jane Blackmore, Winston's ex-wife, says the reality is that virtually all the girls will be married by 18 and probably have had a child or two. They won't be allowed to choose their husbands. That choice will be made by Winston Blackmore.

Jane Blackmore left Bountiful three years ago, taking her youngest daughter, Brittany, with her. The community's first midwife, Blackmore also left her marriage. For nearly 30 years, she had been Winston Blackmore's legal wife.

But she left and divorced him because she wanted Brittany, to have a chance to complete high school -- something her six other children were never allowed to do.

One of her seven children cried when, at 15, he was told he had to leave school. She says he should have been able to continue, but she couldn't convince her husband to allow him to do so.

Only a few kids are ever allowed to go beyond Grade 8 or Grade 9. So despite Tuesday night's summit and promises that things are changing in Bountiful -- a premise that even principal Richard Blackmore seemed to struggle with -- it's unlikely that these kids will ever get to be pilots or rock stars or fashion designers or world travellers or even police officers.

And why would Winston Blackmore want to hold such a public meeting about something that has been hidden for so long?

"I think Winston is attention-seeking," Jane Blackmore told members of Vancouver's University Women's Club Monday night. "He wants to make people feel better about him."

She told them that FLDS is a cult, not a religion. She said there is nothing spiritual behind what is being lived in Bountiful. Instead she said, "It is terrorism. It attacks individual freedom. It is a place where the family is less valued than animals in a barn."

She and Blackmore married when they were both 18. By the time they were 25, Winston had six wives. By 45, he had 26. Jane delivered more than half of the 90-plus children borne by her so-called sister-wives.

"The number [of wives and children] was less of a concern to me than the fact that their basic needs to love and be loved were not met," she said. "Some of the wives were very young and many of those who were very young had suffered abuse in their own families."

She also denied that any wives -- even first or legal wives -- can veto their husband taking more wives.

She said she learned from a neighbour that Winston had taken as his eighth "plural" or "celestial" wife -- a young teenager -- when he was on a trip to Salt Lake City.

The first of her husband's plural marriages that she attended was when he took his 15th wife in the middle of a meeting of church elders in the United States. The bride had never met Winston before and the ceremony was over so quickly that she turned to Jane with tears in her eyes, asking if what had just happened meant that she was now married to Winston.

Jane Blackmore told of a very close friend who nearly died in childbirth. She had had nine previous pregnancies that resulted in caesarean sections. She required 32 units of blood.

The life Jane Blackmore recounted Monday is a stark counterpoint to what would be told at Tuesday's meeting.

But again, that's no surprise.

Among the first things Jane Blackmore learned as a child was to keep the community's secrets.

She memorized lies to tell her piano teacher -- an outsider. And all too quickly she says, she became skilled at avoiding the questions and letting others answer for her.

But the lying, secrecy and avoiding questions all ended three years ago, on the day Jane Blackmore took her youngest child and drove away.

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