The following is an excerpt from The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect by Daphne Bramham.
In November 2001, a month after the United States, Canada and a coalition of other countries attacked Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden, President George W. Bush talked about the kind of life women and children were leading under the tyranny of the Taliban.
"Women are imprisoned in their homes, and are denied access to basic health care and education. Food sent to help starving people is stolen by their leaders. The religious monuments of other faiths are destroyed. Children are forbidden to fly kites, or sing songs," he said. "A girl of seven is beaten for wearing white shoes."
A few weeks later, Laura Bush filled in for her husband on his weekly radio spot. "All of us have an obligation to speak out," she said. "We may come from different backgrounds and faiths but parents the world over love our children. We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity."
The Bushes were referring to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but they might well have been talking about women and children in the United States and Canada living under the tyranny of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the largest polygamous sect in North America.
Until his imprisonment in 2007, Prophet Warren Jeffs controlled every aspect of the lives of more than 8,000 people, from where they live to whom and when they marry. Jeffs banned school, church, movies and television. He outlawed the colour red and even forbad his followers to use the word "fun." Along with his trusted councillors, Jeffs arranged and forced hundreds of marriages, some involving girls as young as 14 and men as old as or older than their fathers and grandfathers. Many of the brides have been transported across state borders as well as international borders with Canada and Mexico.
The roots of the FLDS are in Mormonism, although the name itself is a recent one. When the mainstream church renounced polygamy in 1890, dissidents splintered off and continued to practise plural marriage. The fundamentalists believe they are the only true Mormons because they continue to hold to founder Joseph Smith's revelation that men must have multiple wives to enter the highest realm of heaven. There, in the "celestial kingdom," they will become gods, and their wives goddesses albeit goddesses who must serve at the table of their gods for all eternity.
Polygamy has been illegal in Canada and the United States since 1890. But fundamentalist Mormonism is thriving in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia. There are dozens of different groups and thousands of so-called independents, which makes it impossible to know how many fundamentalists there are. Estimates range from 37,000 to 1 million across the continent, yet politicians have been loath to do anything about the people who call themselves Saints.
Politicians have not just looked the other way, they have in many instances made it easier for the Saints' leaders to intimidate, control and abuse their followers. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Bountiful, British Columbia, and in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
In 1992, the B.C. government refused to enforce Canada's law by charging the bishop of Bountiful, Winston Blackmore, with polygamy. Citing studies by several leading legal experts, the B.C. government said the law would not withstand a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religion and association.
Those rights, however, are not unlimited. Twice since its decision not to prosecute polygamy, the B.C. government has successfully gone to court to force children of Jehovah's Witnesses to submit to blood transfusions, even though that goes against their beliefs. The government's argument: Religious belief cannot override a child's right to health. Since the 1992 decision to effectively legalize polygamy in B.C., Bountiful's population has more than tripled.
Unlike Christians, who believe that the soul comes to the body at birth and leaves the body at death, the Saints believe in both a pre-mortal existence and the "lifting up" of the earthly body into heaven. They believe millions of spirits are waiting to be born into earthly bodies. And, as God's Chosen People, they believe they have a responsibility to bring as many of those spirits as possible into the world as Mormons rather than as something less worthy. As Joseph Smith's friend and apostle Orson Pratt wrote, "The Lord has not kept [the spirits] in store for five or six thousand years past and kept them waiting for their bodies all this time to send them among the Hottentots, the African negroes, the idolatrous Hindoos or any other fallen nations that dwell upon the face of the Earth."
Emboldened by the failure of governments to prosecute, Canadian polygamist Winston Blackmore no longer hides. A second-generation leader and one of North America's best-known and wealthiest polygamists, Blackmore makes no secret of the fact that he has many wives. How many, he won't say. But some of his wives, those who have left him, say that he has been married 26 times and has more than 100 children.
On at least two occasions, Blackmore - a spiritual leader, superintendent of a government-supported school and respected businessman has publicly confessed to having sex with girls who were only 15 and 16 years old. That's a criminal offence in Canada. His first admission was in 2005 at a "polygamy summit" organized by his wives in Creston, B.C. Nobody said or did anything when he said he'd married "very young girls" because God and the prophet had told him to. Blackmore has yet to be charged.
Blackmore repeated his confession in 2006, during an interview on CNN with Larry King. Blackmore said he hadn't realized that one of his wives was only 15 when they'd married. She had lied about her age, Blackmore said. But all women do that, don't they? he asked King.
Girls may well lie about their age; middle-aged, balding men often do as well. But that's why there are laws to protect children. It's our society's shame that the laws are not always enforced.
After George and Laura Bush spoke out against the human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Utah's Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, recognized the parallels and began calling the FLDS "North America's Taliban." After more than 100 years of his state allowing them to hide in plain sight, he has promised to do something. Arizona's Attorney General, Terry Goddard, also has promised to end the theocracy that exists on his state's border. Both states began by laying charges against Jeffs, first in Arizona and then in Utah.
A handful of men loyal to Jeffs have recently been convicted for having sex with minors. Several Hildale police officers, more loyal to the prophet than to the laws of the state and country, have been stripped of their badges. A Utah court - at the request of the states of Utah and Arizona - has placed the FLDS trust fund in receivership.
In British Columbia, by contrast, the RCMP spent nearly three years investigating Bountiful. Lawyers in the attorney general's ministry recommended that no charges be laid because they didn't believe there was a substantial likelihood of conviction. Attorney General Wally Oppal didn't like that recommendation and hired a special prosecutor, who after two months recommended that the polygamy law be referred to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where justices could rule on whether the law would withstand a constitutional challenge.
Oppal didn't like that answer either. A former Court of Appeal justice himself, Oppal believes it's not something the courts should do. So, he hired another special prosecutor - more of a pit bull - to give him the answer he wants. Charge one or more of them with polygamy, and send them to trial.
Meanwhile, Blackmore continues to direct and control almost every aspect of his followers' lives. He has moved many of his followers to Idaho and has made numerous trips to fundamentalist communities across the United States and Mexico to gather more faithful to his flock.
Girls are still being forced into marriages. Boys are still driven out to make the polygamous arithmetic work for the older men. Neither boys nor girls are getting an adequate education in either country. And Arizona's attorney general admits that reintegrating the communities into the mainstream after years of isolation and theocratic rule is still years away.
How is it that two nations, so clear-sighted in recognizing human rights atrocities in other countries and so fearless in taking on tyrannical rulers on the other side of the world, have been so blind to the human rights violations committed against their own women and children?