Polygamists from U.S. using B.C. as 'safe haven'

No fear of prosecution: Criminal Code offence considered unconstitutional

National Post/August 27, 2001
By Fabian Dawson

Vancouver -- British Columbia is becoming a " safe haven " for polygamists, prompting a coalition to press the province to enforce polygamy laws. Although polygamy is a Criminal Code offence, B.C. has decided not to enforce it, saying the law is unconstitutional.

" B.C. is the only place in North America where polygamy and its associated abuses can be practised openly without fear of prosecution, " said Debbie Palmer, spokeswoman for the Committee Concerned with Child Abuse in Polygamy, which is co-ordinating efforts in Canada to recriminalize polygamy in the province.

"There already are polygamous families looking for a safe haven in B.C., " said Ms. Palmer, who fled the Bountiful polygamous commune in Lister, B.C., in the early '90s.

Recently, one large polygamous family-the Chatwins-who lived near the Utah-Arizona border, moved to the Creston area. " They were looking for a safer place to practise what they preach, " said Dee Bateman, who taught some of the Chatwin children before they moved to Creston.

Ms. Palmer said other polygamous families have set up base near the B.C.-Idaho border around Bonners Ferry in Idaho. " Their children walk across the border and go to school at Bountiful, " said Ms. Palmer. " The word is out there that B.C. is a safe place for polygamists.

"A coalition of powerful women, among them lawyers, professors and social activists and members of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, plan legal challenges, presentations to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and protest rallies at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February of next year, the activists say. They want B.C. to start enforcing the law on polygamy and devise a multi-agency approach to protect children and women in polygamous unions.

Ms. Palmer's group is being helped by anti-polygamy groups in the United States, such as For Kids Sake and the Salt Lake City-based Tapestry Against Polygamy.

Jay Beswick of For Kids Sake recently received a letter from Gordon Campbell, the Premier, saying he has referred American concerns about B.C.'s stand on polygamy to Geoff Plant, the Attorney-General. Mr. Plant was not available for comment.

Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, said she and others are " strategizing " on what to do " about Canada. " " We know they have been taking young girls up to Canada to get married and it's only going to get worse, but Canada and your government does not want to do anything, " Ms. Erickson said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Ms. Erickson said her group's efforts are being intensified in the wake of Friday's court sentencing in Utah of Tom Green, a Mormon fundamentalist with five wives and 30 children.

Green's sentence of five years in jail-he could have received 25 years-has triggered fears among the estimated 30,000 polygamists in America of a crackdown on their lifestyle that has been tolerated for more than 50 years. Green, 53, was also ordered to repay US$78,000 to the state for fraudulently collected welfare.

Polygamy arrived in Utah with the first Mormon settlers in the 1840s. The Mormon Church was pressured into disavowing the practice in 1890. Utah outlawed it in 1896 as a condition of being granted statehood, but is still reckoned to harbour tens of thousands of covert practitioners. The largest of the breakaway groups-The United Effort Order-has communes along the Utah-Arizona border and in Lister, B.C. The Bountiful community, which is said to be about 1,000 strong, is led by businessman Winston Blackmore. Mr. Blackmore, in his mid-40s, is believed to have 30 wives and 80 children. He is the commune's bishop, newsletter editor, chief executive officer of its businesses and trustee of its property.

He is also the superintendent of the commune's taxpayer-funded school, which instructs its 184 students to keep " sacred secrets. " In most cases among the B.C. polygamists, the first wife is officially registered and the others are married by bishops in secret weddings under a strict code of silence. Green does not belong to the united Effort Order but has connections to Bountiful.

Following Friday's emotional hearing, Green's wives remained defiant. " If they want to get rid of polygamists, they"ll have to kill us all, " said Shirley Beagley Green, who called her husband's sentence a " terrible injustice.

It is not right that our children won't have a father for five years. " Last month investigators in Utah interviewed dozens of people who had left polygamous relationships and families. They are collecting evidence of underaged girls being married and smuggled into B.C.

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