Canadian polygamist sect under pressure

Associated Press/May 14, 2008

Lister, British Columbia - Fluorescent lights cast a yellow-green pall on the posted student artwork. Children's voices recite lessons behind closed doors. A group of seventh-grade girls giggle and whisper as they wander back to class.

But instead of a smiling portrait of an elected official, Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School displays a photograph of a smiling Warren Jeffs - the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who is doing time in a Utah prison, convicted of being an accomplice to rape.

The principal puts an affectionate arm around a youthful and happy second-grade teacher, a mother of 12. She's one of his wives.

The students and the teachers are dressed in hand-sewn clothes, mostly cut from the same few bolts of pastel fabric. The girls wear their hair in long, elaborate French braids, some with exaggerated pompadours above their foreheads.

School rules, posted near the front door, say: "Obey sweetly and promptly."

When authorities raided a thickly walled polygamist compound and took custody of 463 children in Texas last month, child welfare officials said the beliefs practiced there left girls at risk of sexual abuse and encouraged boys to become sexual perpetrators.

Many residents in this parallel community, which includes about 500 American citizens, share those same beliefs - that you take many wives and live a communal lifestyle - but prosecutors have not moved in to take action, Yet.

British Columbia's Attorney General Wally Oppal told The Associated Press he plans to arrest someone on a polygamy charge or ask the courts to weigh in on Bountiful's legal standing within the month.

"Something must be done," he said. "I personally feel, and our government feels, that it would be inappropriate to do nothing."

Bountiful, just north of the U.S. border, is already splintered: some follow Jeffs, others follow his excommunicated former bishop Winston Blackmore. Even though many are related or have same last name, members of the two groups are not allowed to talk with each other.

Wary of outsiders - one Bountiful woman grabbed two children and ran into her home when approached by an AP reporter - these believers say authorities "kidnapped" children in Texas, confirming their worst fears about the broader world they deliberately avoid.

"It's always in the back of our mind," said Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School principal Merrill Palmer. "How would you feel if the police could come to your home and take your children? We have that hanging over us all the time."

One of his wives, teacher Aloha Palmer - wearing the standard ankle-length dress, its pink puffy sleeves covering her arms - said she now warns children that "the police, the authorities, these are people to be feared."

Bountiful residents have reason to worry: Just like in Texas, polygamy is illegal in Canada.

But instead of responding to a direct complaint of sexual abuse, Oppal would be reacting to two decades of unanswered pressure that the Canadian government do something about these families who practice plural marriages with impunity.

The pressure has been growing since the Texas raid. A national poll last month found nearly two-thirds of Canadians want Bountiful residents who break the law by practicing polygamy to be prosecuted.

But two Canadian laws stand in contradiction: Polygamy is banned, and religious freedoms are firmly protected.

In repeated investigations, the more troubling questions of sexual abuse, human trafficking and forced marriages also have been investigated. As part of a three-year review launched in 2004, detectives spent three months in the community. No charges were brought, but the legal age of sexual consent in Canada increased to 16 from 14 on May 1.

"To me it is so offensive that nothing's been done," said Daphne Branham, who has published a book about Canada's polygamous renegade Mormon sect. "Everything about the community is so unbelievable, from the fact that we fund the schools, we provide their health care. Our doctors and nurses - they see the fathers in the hospital, they sign the birth certificates - everyone knows what's going on out there."

Bountiful's leaders say they are being unfairly singled out. Some say fewer than one in four Bountiful families are polygamous. No man takes more than one wife, legally; the rest are spiritual unions - no different, they say, than a married man having a fling.

"Canadian officials don't need to look very far from the windows of the capital to see people who are carrying on relationships with more than one woman at the same time, which is polygamy. For them to target us would be nothing more than religious persecution," said Winston Blackmore, the former bishop, who has said he has more than two dozen wives and more than 100 children.

The FLDS, with an estimated 10,000 members, is headquartered in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. In 1947, a small group moved across the Canadian border into Lister. The newcomers dubbed the pristine spot at the base of a snowy mountain range Bountiful.

In addition to an estimated 1,000 Canadians who live here, the U.S. Embassy estimates there are about 300 Americans loyal to Blackmore, and another 200 who follow Jeffs.

Unlike the raided compound in Eldorado, Texas, with its walls and locked gate, Bountiful is unmarked and open. The region is dotted with lush orchards swarming this spring with pollenating bees. Pheasant, ducks and deer - at odd times, even a herd of caribou or grazing elk - meander by.

A rolling road through forests and farms leads to a single traffic sign, a curled white arrow that in Canada means a dead-end street. But this road continues into Bountiful - a collection of large, mostly unfinished homes that look down on creeks littered with broken buckets, bent bicycle rims and plastic bags. The creeks wind through a neighborhood of smaller poorly kept homes with broken windows, broken siding and broken stairs.

Children bounce on trampolines, toddlers dash down footpaths. Three women in matching, limb-covering pink dresses push double strollers along the hardpacked dirt roads, their hems and boots splashed with mud.

Emmett Blackmore, 11, waves from a unicycle. "I'm just learning!" he laughs. Pedaling away, he startles a wild turkey.

Minutes later, two vans driven by women block the only road out of town. A man, who does not give his name, approaches and peers into AP's rental car.

"Do you have a boy in there?" he asks. "I'm told you were talking to a child back there."

He looks into the car, empty but for two occupants and some photography equipment.

Later, John Kettle, the local administrative district director, said the "naive" community is "under siege."

"It's like the 1950s here. It's a time warp of niceness. People are genuine. It's the best kept secret in North America," he said.

Church doctrine touting plural marriage and a communal lifestyle stems from early Mormon theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That church, however, abandoned polygamy in 1890 and rejects any link to fundamentalists who continue the practice.

Then came the second divide. While Jeffs' followers stick to fundamentalist practices, Blackmore has liberalized his family and followers, discouraging forced marriages and young brides; he no longer requires women to wear specific dresses but urges them, instead, to dress conservatively. Some of his children even attend schools outside Bountiful, in the nearby community.

Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School is for Jeffs' followers; about 200 yards down a grassy hill, Mormon Hills School is for Blackmore's people. Together, the schools receive about $600,000 in public funds each year.

Residents receive fire, paramedic and police support from Creston, a city of 5,000 about 10 miles to the north. Health care is provided under the government's national program. Residents see doctors at nearby hospitals; babies are often born in an onsite midwife clinic.

Creston Mayor Joe Snopek said Bountiful's residents rarely call for help because "they want to take care of their own problems."

As taxpayers, Kettle said, residents deserve the services they receive. "I don't have the time or the inclination to look in people's windows. As long as they're following the law, I don't give a rat's patootie," he said.

Kettle bristled at what he sees as an unending assault on Bountiful's way of life. "No one is sticking up for the polygamous Mormons. They're an easy target."

But some women who have left the sect, including Debbie Palmer, say girls as young as 14 have been forced to marry older men. Palmer, whose father had six wives, is the oldest of 47 children. She said that many residents know of no other life. She left in 1988.

"The fear we were brought up with, that the evil outside world was going to do us in and destroy us, made us more vulnerable to someone if they were inclined to be abusive," she said.

Palmer, who describes decades of personal cruelty, rape and suicide attempts, said she hopes police will arrest the male perpetrators, and not take children away from their mothers.

Several women who have left describe a flow of underage females across the border, through Idaho, sent from Bountiful to the Texas compound for arranged marriages. Canadian officials say at least one of their citizens was seized by Texas authorities in last month's raid; Bountiful residents said there were at least several more.

Some Bountiful community members have been buying property and settling down in Idaho, which is just a 30-minute hike through the woods, or a 10-minute drive past a tiny border station.

Authorities in Idaho and FBI agents, who recently met with leaders in Bountiful, say the new residents will not find sanctuary if they want to practice polygamy there.

Bountiful residents say they realize there are plenty of people who don't admire their way of life.

"You should try dressing up like one of us, put on one of these dresses, do your hair up, and see how terribly people look at you, how cruel they can be, for no good reason," said Rosalyn Blackmore.

The raid in Texas, and the fear of a raid here, is deja vu for Blackmore, who was an infant in the FLDS community of Short Creek, Ariz., in 1953 when it was raided by state and federal authorities.

Standing with Principal Palmer in his school's hallway, Blackmore said she wondered how people in the United States could look at these "loving parents" and assume there is abuse.

"We're losing the public relations battle here big time," said Palmer.

Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver contributed to this report.

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