Life offered few choices in polygamous commune

Vancouver Sun/May 26, 2006
By Daphne Bramham

Cranbrook -- Truman Oler looks enough like the Sedin twins to suggest that given the opportunity, he might have been able to live his dream and, like them, play in the National Hockey League.

But Oler never had that chance.

He never had a chance to finish school. In fact, he didn't have a lot of chances at all, which is why three years ago he left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, walking away from family and friends and a life centred around the practice of polygamy.

Oler is 24. He is one of the 48 children of Dalmon Oler, one of the founders of the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C.

Dalmon Oler, Ray Blackmore and a couple of other families dropped out of the mainstream Mormon church in Alberta to practise "the principle."

That principle is polygamy, set out by Joseph Smith in his Doctrine and Covenants, one of the primary texts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And while fundamentalists still practise polygamy, the LDS disavowed it in 1890 under pressure from the U.S. government.

They moved from Alberta to Lister, B.C. in 1945.

It was an ideal location, far from prying eyes in a remote corner of southeastern B.C. and close to the American border for an easier commute to other polygamous communities in Utah and Arizona.

Over time, they unofficially, but fittingly, changed its name to Bountiful. Over time, Oler had six wives and all those children.

Truman was one of the last, the youngest child born to Oler's second wife, Memory Blackmore. She was Ray Blackmore's daughter and sister to Winston Blackmore, who pushed Dalmon Oler aside to become the FLDS bishop.

Blackmore, in turn, was pushed aside four years ago, ex-communicated by FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs and replaced by Jim Oler -- Truman's full brother. Now Bountiful is split, with about half the 1,200 people following Blackmore and the rest following Jeffs and obeying Jim Oler.

Until Truman Oler walked away from the religion, polygamy and Bountiful three years ago, his life was determined by the bishop.

Oler wanted to play minor hockey in nearby Creston. But that meant playing with "Gentiles."

"You were all Gentiles [to us]," he said. "They taught us that you were the people who had rebelled against God. We were definitely told to stay away from them."

To play hockey, he needed special permission. His father had just died at age 63.

And because women have no say in such matters, his mother told him he needed Blackmore's permission. Blackmore said no, even though he himself was an ardent hockey player who still puts on his skates for oldtimers games or a turn around the rink with some of his 100 or more children.

"I wasn't brave enough to go against Winston and my mother at the time. And I know Jim [Oler] would have been really against it."

He wasn't told not to leave school after Grade 9. But there was no encouragement to stay.

"I was told why do you need to go to school? You're just going to be making fence posts.

"That was the mentality everybody had. We were just going to be loggers."

He had no career plan even though career planning is part of the required curriculum in B.C. schools. Teachers at Bountiful elementary-secondary school (and everybody else in the community) told Oler and the other boys that their future was to work long and hard and then hand money back to the church.

He was 16 when he went to work full-time in Sundre, Alta. for the then-bishop Blackmore, making $200 a month for 10-hour days Monday to Friday and six to eight hours on Saturdays. It was an improvement from the $100 a month he'd made when he worked the two previous summers.

So Truman stayed for a few more years, trying to live up to what he'd been taught, enduring one cold, Alberta winter in an unheated shed that Blackmore provided as lodging for his workers. But it didn't stop him from fighting Blackmore to get an hourly wage rather than monthly pay. He battled the bishop for permission to buy his own vehicle instead of just being able to use a company truck.

Oler tried to treat girls "like poisonous snakes," a reference to Eve in the Bible.

He tried to believe that when the time was right, the bishop would have a revelation about who would become Truman's wife. He tried to believe that he would need three wives if he wanted to gain entry into the highest realm of heaven.

He couldn't.

"I never considered I'd be a polygamist. It doesn't seem morally right. A lot of what they do goes against human nature and polygamy definitely goes against human nature."

And contrary to pro-polygamists' depiction of warm, loving extended families, Oler says it was lonely growing up with so many mothers and so many kids.

"I didn't really even know my mom. I don't really know any of them. I know a few that I worked with and I knew my dad pretty good. But he died when I was 16."

As for the child brides as young as 14 and 15, Oler says: "That's immoral. That's just wrong. I can't see taking a 16-year-old for myself and it's not right for them. It's also not right for the girl.

"What kind of life will she be able to have? There's not even a little bit of a love life and I think people really only want to be with one other person."

Only after Oler left did he learn that the intermarriage that is common in polygamous communities is actually terribly dangerous for their offspring. "Growing up it was never brought to light that some relatives should be off limits for being a girlfriend or a wife."

But worst of all, Truman Oler wasn't allowed to think for himself.

"It's a lot of mind control. You just look at them and they don't even know how the world actually works. They don't have TV. They don't read newspapers. They're naive about how things work. But they sure know how to use government and milk it for all it's worth."

His revelation to leave came slowly. At 21, he went to the FLDS headquarters in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah to give the religion one last try, with no drinking, no partying and following the dictates of the demanding Jeffs.

He worked for a couple of his brothers-in-law. Three months was enough.

He told his brother, Jim, he was coming back to Canada. But Bountiful's bishop said Truman had to talk to Jeffs -- a man now on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, having fled prosecution for sexual offences.

But Oler had gone there of his own free will and he wasn't asking for permission to leave.

Oler's break with the church came around the time of the split in Bountiful between Jeffs and Blackmore.

"It [the split] turned family members into enemies. They just hate each other now. I couldn't see any good in that. How can best friends become enemies? That was one of the things that got me most. Best friends are enemies just because one guy says one thing and one guy says another. ... I just wanted to get away from the Warrenites."

When he walked away, Oler was 21 years old, broke and barely educated.

"They say they don't kick you out. But you can only stay if you say you believe. But I'm not welcome and if I went to my mom's house, they would ask me to leave. ... When you do see them, they don't acknowledge you. They treat total strangers better than they treat me."

But even though Oler was now an apostate and should have been shunned, his half-brother Kendall -- a Warrenite -- gave him a job.

For the first year, Oler said he worked to get enough money for enough beer to keep him drunk all weekend long.

Most of his partying and drinking was in his Grandma Lorna Blackmore's tiny home on the edge of Bountiful. She had left years before.

He credits her for helping him realize that he could survive without the church. She stuck with him and the other so-called lost boys who showed up each weekend at her home with nowhere else to go.

"She was very kind to us. She never kicked us out."

His sister, Jane Blackmore, helped him realize his other dream of completing high school. A midwife and ex-wife of Winston Blackmore, she found local people willing to put up the money to hire teacher Trish McLeod. Oler says McLeod's help has been invaluable to him and some of the other young men and women who left Bountiful before finishing high school.

"My mom didn't call me once all year. She's a teacher and she didn't even ask me two questions about how I was doing in school."

Despite that, Truman has continued to move forward. He took the pre-apprentice course to become a heavy-duty mechanic at Cranbrook's College of the Rockies this past year. He's got a full-time job at Woodlands Equipment. In early July, he'll write his Grade 12 equivalency test.

So what does he hope for now? "I'd like to do the best I can at the job I'm in and I'd like to get married and have a few children ... .

"I hope to be a good person like my dad. He was a real good man. He helped everybody he could, he worked himself to death for his family.... My dad's favourite saying was 'There's always room for one more at the back of the bus.'"

Oler says he sometimes thinks about what he's left behind.

"I've thought about why they think they're so right. They think they are the only ones going to heaven and that is so wrong.

"There are so many more ways to live. I don't need to give money to a church to be a good person and I don't have to repent. I know I'm a good person.

His only regret? Not leaving sooner.

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