Vancouver -- Debbie Palmer, a women with eight children from three assigned marriages in a Mormon polygamist colony, is going to court in an effort to expose a lifestyle which she says leads to sexual, physical, psychological and spiritual abuse.
Ms. Palmer, 47, intends to ask the B.C. Supreme Court this week to consider a class action against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on behalf of women who say they have suffered as a result of the religion's communal, polygamist lifestyle.
At least 25 wives, and possibly as many as 200 from communities in Canada and the United States are expected to be part of the unprecedented lawsuit against the well-established religious institution.
She said she expects the civil court case will "bring into the public and legal arena questions that the government has been extremely reluctant to address."
The lawsuit could shatter a 55-year long silence by authorities who have ignored repeated attempts by women for help.
Ms. Palmer was part of the polygamist Mormon group that established a commune called Bountiful in an isolated part of southeast British Columbia in 1947.
Ms. Palmer said she suffered sexual, physical, psychological and spiritual abuse as a child and as a wife at Bountiful.
The civil lawsuit will raise concerns about the lack of education for children in the religious community and the social, financial and personal difficulties confronting those who try to leave, she said.
The fundamentalist sect believes the highest degree of salvation is achieved through multiple "celestial" marriages and having several children.
Polygamy is illegal, but the government has adopted a hands-off approach to the community. B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant says a guarantee of freedom of religion protects church members from the law.
Lawyer Vaughn Marshall, of the Calgary-based firm of Docken & Company, said in an interview the women are looking for justice. "They want a court to say, 'This was wrong,' " said Mr. Marshall, who is spearheading a team representing the women.
Laws on polygamy and bigamy are intended to prevent the exploitation of women and to protect their property rights, he said. But women leave Bountiful with nothing, Mr. Marshall said.
The lawsuit alleges systemic negligence and abuse, and "unjust enrichment," he also said.
Winston Blackmore, a long-time leader of the community who has 30 wives and more than 100 children, was replaced this summer. He did not respond to a request for an interview. Jim Oler, the current leader, also did not return phone calls.
Ms. Palmer said the rural community currently has about 200 men and 600 women and children. Bountiful is affiliated with polygamist Mormon communities in Utah and Arizona, with a population of between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
She said she is aware of about 50 girls who have been brought across the Canada-U.S. border in the past three years to be married to men at Bountiful. About 25 girls from Bountiful have been sent to Utah and Arizona for marriage, she said.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail earlier this year showed that federal immigration officials have granted permission for U.S. girls brought to Bountiful for polygamist marriages to stay in Canada permanently.
Ms. Palmer has been trying since the mid-1990s to establish a system of support for women who wish to leave Bountiful. She estimates she has helped about 40 women who have left the polygamist colony over the past decade.
She said women who left Bountiful have recounted incidents of sexual abuse. No criminal charges involving sex crimes have been laid against Bountiful members since the early 1990s.
Ms. Palmer's parents moved to the polygamist colony when she was 2. The religion's leader, Rulon Jeffs, assigned her to be the sixth wife of Ray Blackmore when she was 15. Mr. Blackmore was 57 at that time.
Mr. Blackmore died of leukemia two years later. Ms. Palmer was assigned to two more husbands before she left, in despair, in 1991.
In a documentary on her struggles, called Leaving Bountiful,produced by Helen Slinger and Maureen Palmer, she says she left after her 13-year-old daughter said she had been touched sexually by Ms. Palmer's third husband.
Ms. Palmer said in an interview that the community of Boutiful is in turmoil after Mr. Jeffs died without leaving a designated successor.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which promotes polygamy as important for salvation, is not associated with the Mormon church.
The Mormon church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890.