Bountiful's troubling tradition

Men in this quiet B.C. community aren't limited to just one mate

The Globe and Mail/December 9, 2000
By Estanislao Oziewicz

Every Friday and Saturday night, the boys from Bountiful get together for a couple of hours of pickup hockey at the Johnny Bucyk Arena in nearby Creston, B.C.

In the wooden bleachers one recent Friday were a handful of women with infants in their laps. Other children squealed in delight because a malfunctioning vending machine was spewing out hot chocolate for only 10 cents a cup.

Pucks boomed off the boards. The women cheered and stamped their feet. The scene could be anywhere in Canada -- except that the women are all teenagers in 1940s hairdos and long, high-collar dresses. What is more, they and the hockey players all belong to the only known openly polygamous community in the country.

Fuelled by a religious zeal to marry and procreate -- believed to be necessary steps on the road to heavenly salvation -- Bountiful has doubled in size to about 700 members in a decade.

Even more extraordinary is that they are largely the progeny of a handful of fundamentalist Mormons who settled in Creston Valley only half a century ago. While a conjugal union with more than one person is an offence under the Criminal Code, carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison, no one in Bountiful is particularly worried about being prosecuted.

"We've got a great piece of legislation in this land of ours," said Winston Kaye Blackmore, "and it's the Charter of Rights and Freedoms." Mr. Blackmore, 44, leads the Canadian branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that was established in 1946 and claims to remain true to the precepts of Joseph Smith, who founded the church in 1830.

Smith justified polygamy by citing Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham, and Mr. Blackmore contends that "there's plenty of evidence in our doctrine and covenants and revelations to our prophet that state the principle of plural marriage is an everlasting principle. And that's what we believe today. If it was then, it is today."

He has reason to be confident that the Charter is a shield. In 1992, despite evidence gathered by the RCMP, the B.C. government decided against prosecuting him and a co-leader (now deceased) on polygamy charges. Officials said they were concerned that the Criminal Code provisions violate religious-freedom guarantees contained in the Charter.

"Section 293 [of the code] is invalid and will not be enforced in B.C.," declared Hermann Rohrmoser, who was then Crown attorney for the region and is now a provincial court judge in Kamloops.

Polygamy may be a social problem, said Colin Gableman, the attorney-general of the day, but it is not a criminal one.

Yet Mr. Blackmore, a prominent and respected local businessman as well as the church's Canadian bishop, remains intensely frustrated. After a lull, journalists and some "apostates" -- his term for people who have left his church or been kicked out -- are stirring up trouble again.

In a rare interview, he said he is so incensed at some published accounts that he has considered laying a criminal complaint against a reporter for inciting hatred against his community. But this unwelcome focus on Bountiful also has resulted in media calls to B.C. law-enforcement officials, who appear to take a different approach than their predecessors.

They say the polygamy section of the Criminal Code is valid until a court says otherwise and it is not up to a Crown lawyer to determine whether it will be enforced.

The recent spotlight on Bountiful stems in part from a complaint filed by Lenore Holm, a 37-year-old mother of 13 who says she was thrown out of the U.S. church after objecting to church-sanctioned preparations for her daughter, then 16, to become the second wife of a 39-year-old married man with 10 children.

She alleges that last May, as part of the prenuptial arrangements, her daughter, Nichole, was taken without her parents' consent across the border to Bountiful "for lewd purposes," a charge being investigated by the RCMP in Creston. Ms. Holm has filed the same complaint with the police in Colorado City, Ariz.

Mr. Blackmore denies the allegations. He said Nichole told him that she visited Bountiful to get away from her mother and "to try to heal" her mind. The girl has since returned to the United States, he said, and is living -- unmarried -- in Colorado City, which along with Hildale just across the Utah border forms the backbone of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints.

Nichole could not be reached for comment, but Wynn Jessop in Colorado City, the man to whom she was allegedly given in marriage, vigorously denied Ms. Holm's charges. "It's all lies. That's all I can say."

Before cutting off the call, he said Nichole is not living with him. Ms. Holm does not know for sure what is really going on because her daughter will not talk to her. Her allegations have been widely reported in Utah, the base of the mainstream Mormon church, which officially abandoned polygamy a century ago in compliance with federal law.

Not only did the established Mormon church capitulate by renouncing polygamy, it went further by excommunicating those who persisted in the practice. The controversy over polygamy continues to this day. In October, Utah's Attorney-General hired a special investigator to examine "closed societies" for evidence of tax evasion, welfare fraud, child sexual abuse and domestic abuse.

The move came after much pressure from people such as Utah Senator Ron Allen, who has said: "We have thousands of women pulled out of school at any early age, forced into marriages with older men, kept isolated from society, constantly impregnated and often placed on public assistance with no financial means of their own. They are forgotten citizens facing abuse and fear. On top of it all, the victims are constantly taught that God is just pleased as punch about the whole deal. It has to stop."

In Canada, Ms. Holm has the support of the Committee Concerned with Polygamous Issues, a group of women who have fled "plural" marriages and are intent on putting a spotlight on what they regard as polygamy's dysfunctional reality.

A more persistent thorn in Mr. Blackmore's side is a woman who -- in the interrelated world of Bountiful -- is, at the same time, his stepmother, his sister-in-law and his niece.

Deborah Palmer, 44, the chairwoman of the polygamy-issues committee, now lives in Prince Albert, Sask. When she was 15, she said, she married Mr. Blackmore's father, Ray, who was 57 at the time and already had five wives and 37 children. He died a few years later, she said, and she was "reassigned" to another 57-year-old man.

Finally, she became the third wife of yet another man, who she said abused her, prompting her to flee in 1988. Mr. Blackmore maintains that she was a willing participant in all her marriages, "but Debbie Palmer will weep, gush and blush and carry on and tell you how she was used and misused as a young and innocent girl."

This fall, Ms. Palmer wrote a long letter to federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan outlining her concerns. So far, she said, she has received no response. In her letter, she also reminded Ms. McLellan that Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The UN committee that monitors conformity to the convention has declared that "polygamous marriage contravenes a woman's right to equality with men, and can have such serious emotional and financial consequences for her and her dependents that such marriages ought to be discouraged and prohibited."

All this seems far removed from the near-idyllic setting where Mr. Blackmore's father and a few other families settled 50 years ago. Roughly half a century earlier, their Mormon ancestors had crossed the border from the United States and established farms around present-day Cardston, Alta.

According to some accounts, a few of them clung to their belief of taking more than one wife. As a result, they were excommunicated from the mainstream Mormon church, which remains a dominant religious fixture in southern Alberta.

Regarding themselves as true Mormons, these "fundamentalists" looked west across the Rockies for a place to settle. They found a rich and pastoral property just across the boundary in B.C.'s southeast corner -- the only part of the province on Mountain Time.

Bountiful, a stone's throw from the Idaho frontier in a farming post called Lister, is at the foot of a towering peak of the Purcell Mountains in a somewhat remote region known as the East Kootenays. Here, the Canadian polygamists have not only multiplied rapidly, but have also prospered and developed harmonious relations with their neighbours in Creston, a town of 5,000 built around agriculture in the fertile valley and logging in the mountains.

Creston Mayor Don Leben, a former Canadian Forces fighter pilot, said his live-and-let-live attitude is common among area residents. "It's very much a laissez-faire type of relationship," said. "They have their beliefs, they don't try to force them on us in our community and we don't try to force our beliefs on them."

Bountiful's Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints is not listed in local directories of places of worship, an omission that is probably related to its preference for a low profile and the fact that its growth depends not on proselytizing but on procreating.

In other respects, it is like other churches that are large property owners. It owns several hundred hectares of land through the United Effort Plan, a private trust established in Utah and run by seven male directors. In Lister, the property includes a collection of tidy frame homes, a dairy barn converted into a meeting hall, a postpartum clinic and a provincially funded independent school for about 200 elementary pupils and a handful of high-school students. Very few go on to postsecondary studies and then only for courses such as nursing.

A government inspection of the school two years ago found that provincial curriculum standards were being met and that "a genuine feeling of care, respect and love permeates the school."

Principal Merrill Palmer said community members are overjoyed that they have a publicly supported school that allows them to inculcate their children with their religious beliefs. His sister, Marlene, a teacher's assistant, said she revels in the community, which values hard work and self-reliance and which Mr. Blackmore proudly proclaimed has no one on welfare. "I love living here, this is what I choose," said Ms. Palmer, 42. "Nobody forces me to stay here. I'm not an oppressed person. I can't imagine any other way of life."

The mother of six (she would have had "16 but my uterus wore out") described a wholesome rural lifestyle in which church members willingly tend to each other's children and women can break away from the stereotype of being barefoot and pregnant and under the thumb of their husbands. For example, Ms. Palmer said, she worked for 19 years at a commercial laundry in Creston to supplement the family income. But Mr. Blackmore made it clear that women working outside the home is an aberration born out of financial necessity.

"In Canada today, I think the maximum family value is for a breadwinner to have a good enough job so that mother can stay home and raise and teach and train the children, attend to their daily duties, while father goes to work. "That is probably the Canadian ideal."

Mr. Blackmore's notion of the Canadian ideal does not extend to the usual understanding of equal rights regardless of gender. For example, women having more than one husband is not in the religious cards, as far as he is concerned. But he dismisses any thought that this means men and women are not on the same footing.

If this sounds illogical, he turns to the Old Testament for support. "Nowhere in the Bible have I run across where God spoke, or had it on record, that there was a woman who had a whole bunch of husbands," he said.

When Mr. Blackmore makes such statements, he makes them with authority second only to that of Rulon Jeffs, the church's "Living Prophet" or "Mouthpiece of God on Earth."

At 90, the reclusive Mr. Jeffs -- a tax accountant, according to U.S. media reports -- is alleged to have between 19 and 60 wives and lives in Utah and Arizona. In the mid-1980s, he named Mr. Blackmore bishop of the Canadian colony and the United Effort Plan's sole Canadian trustee. "He's my boss," Mr. Blackmore said.

But in Bountiful, Mr. Blackmore is a boss in more ways than one. As well as the religious leader, he is superintendent of the colony's school and head of a logging and pressure-treated-lumber company that employs more than 100 people, most of them church members.

In a community full of hockey fans, Mr. Blackmore is also a cheerleader. Whenever he gets a chance, he goes to watch his beloved Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League even though the team plays its home games in Cranbrook, an hour's drive up the highway.

Contrary to assertions that the community has closed itself to the outside world, Mr. Blackmore said he encourages members to live and work off church property and about half of them do.

Wherever they live, they practise a form of communitarianism involving donated labour for community projects and they are tithed 10 per cent of their household's disposable income over and above living expenses. "They manage themselves," Mr. Blackmore said. "They spend their own money and they go to work to do it, and they struggle along just like everybody else does." Those living on church property are regarded by the leaders as tenants-at-will, meaning that they may be subject to eviction orders. This has led to nasty court battles in the United States, where some evicted members have complained that they were not compensated for upgrades they had made to church property. But Mr. Blackmore said: "We all understand the rules of living on church property."

The church members also have an understanding about dealing with outsiders. For one thing, there is a limit to how far they are willing to go in revealing aspects of their personal lives. For example, Mr. Blackmore declined to say how many women he has married or to answer questions about what he regards as domestic privacy. "Some idiot says I have 30 wives. Just because someone says it, does that mean I have 30 wives, for crying out loud? My goodness." Nor will he reveal how many children he has fathered. "You can say I have lots of children, boys and girls. I don't have 80 or anywhere close to that."

Mr. Blackmore also does not take kindly to attempts at humour. Recently, when a female reporter from the United States joked that she would not become another of his wives, he said: "Don't make me puke." The community decided to refuse questions about personal matters after publicity in the early 1990s that focused on possible polygamy charges and on several sexual-assault convictions against male church members.

In one case, a 16-year-old boy was convicted of sexually molesting his half-sister. In another, a man was convicted of indecent assault against his wife's sister. In yet another, a man was convicted of sexual assault against one of his wives.

Mr. Blackmore said sexual abuse in his community is no more common than in monogamous societies. When it occurs, he said, it is not tolerated. "No one needs to live with abuse." He said he has an agreement with both the RCMP and the B.C. Ministry of Family Services to report cases of abuse, but he offered no recent examples. The police said they were unaware of any.

When the interview turned to the issue of multiple marriages, Mr. Blackmore was not reticent to defend the practice, even in cases involving teenaged girls. He maintained that the women and girls hold the upper hand because in his community, boys and men are not allowed to "court," or date or make any advances.

Merrill Palmer, the school principal, put it this way: "We feel that it is a woman's right to ask whether she can marry a certain individual." The final say, he added, rests with Mr. Jeffs, as God's representative on Earth.

Mr. Blackmore said the first thing he wants to know when a teenaged girl comes to him asking to be married is whether her parents are in favour. "I want to hear if there's some reason they'd be better off married than at home. "I'll tell you what: It's not a good thing for the church not to support them and have them run off and be a street person somewhere in the world," he said. "For us to think there are not 16-year-olds who are not as responsible as many 'age-old' adults is just something I don't agree with. There are lots of mature 16-year-olds and many times those people are more mature than their parents."

(In B.C., one needs the consent of both parents to marry under the age of 19 and one needs a special court authorization to marry under the age of 16.) Mr. Blackmore would not reveal numbers, but he said more community members are in monogamous relationships than in polygamous ones. "Men can't just go out and 'court them up' another wife," he said. "Our responsibility is to take care of the families we've got. The one thing that anyone has to have before he can have more than one wife is women who are willing to marry him. That takes a whole lifetime in lots of people."

Whenever they are ready, there are enough bloodlines to avoid intermarriage, Mr. Blackmore said. Besides, Mr. Palmer said, there is a steady, yet slow, flow of people between Bountiful and its sister communities south of the border.

All this is deeply unsettling to a middle-aged woman who left the community but still lives in the area. She alleges that girls are being married as young as 15, but it is impossible to prove because the unions are sealed in secret church ceremonies and there is no paper trail. "I just think they're just children. I don't agree with it and I never will," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used because she has grandchildren still living in the colony. "When I look at them and see them as the second or third or 10th wife of some guy they don't know and haven't fallen in love with -- they were just told to marry -- it just breaks my heart."

She dismissed as "scurrilous lies" all assertions that girls have a choice. "Because of the culture and the way the kids are conditioned from Day 1, they don't understand there is another way, and I don't think for most of them there is."

She said the most difficult thing for the outside world to understand about Bountiful is its spiritual dimension, which she maintained is a form of mind control. "It's not just men wanting more wives just for the sake of sex," she said. "It's not for any of these purposes. This is what they believe, this is what they have to do to gain their salvation. And some of these young men and women are very sincere people."

Some people think that government has a role in keeping an eye on what is going on in Bountiful. Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who has studied polygamy, said that while the state may not interfere with religious belief, it may interfere in some practices if they run contrary to law. "The state has an obligation to protect citizens when they cannot protect themselves," he said, suggesting that offences other than polygamy, such as forcible confinement and sexual assault, could be investigated if complaints were lodged.

McGill University law professor Roderick Macdonald has studied the legal implications of complex personal relationships, such as homosexual marriages, and he said what is important is not whether someone is polygamous or monogamous, but what the nature of the relationship is. "The most important concerns of the law historically have been with violence and exploitation and coercion in people in relationships that are relatively intimate," said Prof. Macdonald, a former president of the Law Commission of Canada.

If society is concerned about polygamy, Mr. Blackmore said, legal officials should look no further than themselves because the Criminal Code definition leaves a lot of room for possible prosecution.

Section 293 says it is a crime to agree, consent to or practise any form of conjugal union (a form of union under the guise of marriage) with more than one person at the same time. Under the section, it is not necessary to prove at trial the method by which the relationship was entered into, agreed to or consented to, nor is it necessary to establish that the parties had or intended to have sexual intercourse.

Mr. Blackmore said he has laughed about the definition with some RCMP officers, "who said they could find several polygamists within their own membership, in their own detachment. "I said, 'Go worry about those fellows and leave me alone.' " Chances are they will, even though Geoffrey Gaul, a spokesman for the criminal-law branch of the B.C. Attorney-General's Ministry, appeared to leave the door slightly ajar to a polygamy prosecution if a police investigation warrants one.

"The constitutionality of the section would clearly be in question, but it's not for Crown counsel to make that judgment call," he said.

Mormons through the ages

1820s: Joseph Smith, born in 1805 in Sharon, Vt., begins having visions of God. He is instructed through the visitations not to join any of the established religions.

April 6, 1830: Smith founds the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fayette, N.Y.

1831: Smith and followers migrate first to Ohio, then Missouri.

1839: Opposition to their religion prompts the Mormons to establish the community of Nauvoo, in Illinois.

1844: Antagonism from neighbouring towns grows until Smith and brother Hyrum are shot to death in Carthage, Ill.

1846-47: Smith's successor Brigham Young leads the Mormons to Iowa, then Nebraska and finally Salt Lake Valley, Utah.

1862: U.S. Congress bans polygamy, although the law is not enforced for years.

1879: Supreme Court upholds the law, so the church sends colonists to Mexico and Canada and polygamists are forced underground.

1887: Charles Ora Card, who had been arrested for polygamy, establishes a settlement in southern Alberta, which becomes Cardston.

1890: The church officially ends polygamy and the fundamentalist movement begins.

1940s: Members from Alberta begin moving into British Columbia, including Cranbrook, Creston and Kimberly.

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