Yahk, British Columbia — The 16 new pupils at two-room Yahk Elementary School are wary of strangers in case they are unbelievers, apostates, journalists — anyone their church elders consider evil.
Their mothers, mostly pale and plump with hair swept back in stiff pioneer hairdos, cast their eyes down and evade questions as they pick up their kids. With their polygamous sect divided and one of its leaders wanted by the FBI, the media spotlight is all the more unwelcome.
But not to Rita Palmer. Four of her eight children are among this year’s newcomers, and she’s eager to set the record straight: “We’re normal. We’re not brainwashed.”
Palmer, 34, and several other mothers of children at Yahk belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that quit the Mormon Church in Utah after Mormonism banned polygamy in 1890. Frustrated in the confines of their secretive community, and too busy to home-school their many children, they have done the unthinkable — put their kids into Canada’s public schools.
They have moved them out of Mormon Hills, the school on their religious compound in Bountiful, whose two leaders are feuding for control and are under investigation on suspicion of sexual abuse and child trafficking. One of those leaders, Warren Jeffs, is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
The mothers are trying to live among the townspeople of nearby Yahk, Creston and Kitchener.
“This little school is working as a catalyst of hope,” said Linda Allred, the lone teacher at Yahk Elementary. “I don’t agree with polygamy,” she said, but “there are so many other things that are positive about their lifestyle.”
Palmer’s sister Debbie, the author of “Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy,” says girls are taught that the more senior and polygamous their husband is, the better their and their children’s chances are of a happy afterlife.
“There’s a kind of power attached to that,” she said, “when you’re looking at the next life and the eternal perspective, when you’re in the daily trenches and up to your arms in dirty diapers.”