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Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore with some of his daughters and grandchildren.

The problem with Bountiful

A renegade Mormon sect in rural British Columbia has long flouted Canada's polygamy ban, citing religious freedom. Prosecutors have been stymied - until now

By Brian Platt

By all accounts, Bountiful is a beautiful place. Nestled in the Creston Valley of southeast British Columbia, just north of the Idaho border, it is home to about 1,000 people. Aside from the nearby town of Creston, Bountiful is isolated — and that’s how the residents prefer it. It may be the most controversial community in Canada.

Bountiful’s inhabitants belong to two feuding Mormon fundamentalist sects, both of which practise polygamy. In 1990, the RCMP began to investigate allegations from former residents of incest, sexual abuse and trafficking of teenage brides.

Despite the openly polygamous nature of the community, officials hesitated to press charges. Legal experts warned that any attempts to enforce Canada’s century-old polygamy ban would be struck down as a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But in 2008, Wally Oppal, the B.C. attorney general at the time, resolved to charge two Bountiful men, Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, with polygamy, the first such charges in Canada in over half a century. However, the special prosecutor Oppal appointed to handle the file recommended against charging the men until it could be proven that the polygamy ban, section 293 of Canada’s Criminal Code, didn’t violate the Charter. A second appointee recommended the same. Oppal then found a third special prosecutor, who agreed to press charges. But in September 2009, the B.C. Supreme Court threw out the case on the grounds that Oppal was not allowed to cycle through prosecutors in such a manner.

By this time, the province had a new attorney general, Michael de Jong, who decided to determine the polygamy ban’s constitutionality once and for all. He asked the B.C. Supreme Court to hold a reference hearing.

After a year of testimony and deliberation, Chief Justice Robert Bauman released a 335-page ruling last November that upheld the ban. “I have concluded that this case is essentially about harm,” Bauman said. “This includes harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage.” In Bauman’s opinion, that harm was enough to justify limiting Charter freedoms.

Some hailed the decision as a victory for women’s rights, while others felt it was a needless restraint on individual freedoms. If Canada had lifted its ban on polygamy, it would have become the first country in the developed world to do so. Yet the ban’s critics point out that many of the harms we associate with polygamy are already illegal, making a polygamy ban unnecessary. Furthermore, it is legal to live and have sexual relations with as many people as we want; why should it be illegal to formalize such relationships?

For their part, Bountiful community leaders insist there is nothing wrong with their lifestyle, and the allegations by activists, investigators and former residents are baseless.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to whether or not polygamy is an inherently harmful practice. Is it possible to imagine a healthy polygamous relationship? As everyone waits for the attorney general’s next move on Bountiful, the issue continues to simmer.

Daphne Bramham is a long-time Vancouver Sun columnist. In 2004, she had been writing a series of columns about human trafficking, mostly from Asia into North America. After one column, she received an e-mail from one of her readers asking, “Why don’t you ever do anything about Bountiful?”

Since then, Bramham has likely written more words about Bountiful than anyone else in the country, including more than 100 columns and a book in 2008. She supports the ban on polygamy but knows better than anyone that the situation is still a long way from being resolved. “It becomes so complicated to deal with this that governments get paralyzed by it,” Bramham says. “They say, ‘Well, these people seem to be happy, so let’s just leave them be.’”

A group of breakaway Mormon polygamists first arrived in southern Alberta from the United States in 1887, as the mainstream Mormon church was preparing to ban polygamy among its members. Canada’s ban, introduced in 1890, was largely a reaction to this group’s arrival.

The idea was to keep quiet and stay out of trouble, but the Alberta Mormons prospered to the point where one of their members, John Blackmore, became the member of Parliament for Lethbridge in 1935. Although Blackmore did not practise polygamy himself, he spoke out against the ban in Parliament and helped get references to Mormons removed from section 293.

In the 1940s, a few of the polygamist leaders decided to find a more secluded place to settle in. They eventually put down roots in B.C.’s Creston Valley and called their settlement Bountiful.

Sometime in the late 1950s, Bountiful’s polygamists aligned with the Arizona-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), another breakaway polygamist sect. Over the years, this relationship has allegedly involved the movement of young female members across the border in both directions to marry powerful men in other communities.

A decade ago, a leadership schism took place in Bountiful. Today it is split between those who follow Winston Blackmore (grandson of the former Lethbridge MP) and those who follow FLDS’s American leadership. Blackmore currently has more than 20 wives and over 100 children.

Ever since the polygamists arrived in Canada, politicians have mostly left them alone. But in 1990, the RCMP started paying serious attention to claims of widespread abuse in Bountiful.

One of the most prominent Bountiful apostates was Debbie Palmer, who had married a 58-year-old man when she was 15. She left the community in 1988 after one of her daughters said she had been sexually abused. In 1992, three Bountiful men were convicted of sexual abuse, mostly due to Palmer’s testimony.

Over the course of the Supreme Court reference hearing in 2010-11, experts and apostate members put forward reams of testimony about the harms of Bountiful’s polygamist practices. This included allegations of domestic violence, sexual abuse, forced marriage and increased infant mortality in the community.

“I find it somewhat shocking that charges haven’t been laid yet, based on the evidence that has come out during the reference case,” says Bramham. Despite the polygamy ban’s apparent constitutionality, she would actually prefer to see community leaders arraigned for other alleged offences. “The polygamy part of it, for me,” she says, “has always been a way into a story that’s about abuse in a community.”

So why is the polygamy ban important? And why haven’t Bountiful’s leaders been charged with other crimes? “It’s difficult to get witnesses, and that’s a legitimate fear by prosecutors,” says Bramham. Bountiful, as with all FLDS communities, is extremely resistant to outsiders. Those who do speak out are expelled and lose all contact with the community’s members. “What upholding the ban does is that it gives police a tool to go into a community like Bountiful and look for these things.”   

A good argument may exist for a polygamy ban, says University of Victoria political science professor Emmett Macfarlane, but he’s unconvinced by Justice Bauman’s ruling. “My main problem with the reference decision was the conclusion that polygamy is inherently harmful,” says Macfarlane, who specializes in public policy and analyzed the decision for Maclean’s. “Not that it’s harmful in particular contexts, or that it’s likely to lead to abuse, but that we cannot imagine a healthy polygamy relationship. To be frank, I don’t buy that.”

Aside from polygamists themselves, the most consistent opposition to the polygamy ban comes from those who view section 293 as a fundamental violation of individual freedom. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association took part in the reference hearing, urging the judge to strike down the ban as unconstitutional. “The key for us is consent,” said Robert Holmes, the BCCLA president at the time. “If three or more adults wish to live in a conjugal relationship, we don’t think it’s the proper role of government to tell them they should go to jail for it.”

Macfarlane agrees that in a closed community like Bountiful, polygamy causes obvious and serious problems. But a ban on polygamy means that nobody, anywhere, is ever allowed to solemnize a relationship with more than one person. “You run into the problem of criminalizing something that may not always be harmful. From an individual rights perspective, it’s highly problematic,” he says.

One complicating aspect of this debate is the role of religion. It is fairly clear that Canada’s original ban on polygamy did not come from a desire to protect women; in 1890, marital rape was not considered a crime and wouldn’t be for many decades afterward. Instead, the ban was due to prejudice against Mormons who were increasingly immigrating to Canada from the United States.

Winston Blackmore reportedly keeps a framed copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on his wall, because of what he regards as its concrete protection of his religious right to practise plural marriage. Other immigrant communities also have sects who engage in polygamy.

“Our multicultural society has given [Bountiful leaders] a language that gives them protection,” says Bramham. She notes that Blackmore also appropriates the “distinct society” language used by Quebec and Aboriginal nationalists.

Yet those in Macfarlane’s camp prefer to view this debate outside the frame of religious freedom. “I don’t know how someone has the right to practise polygamy on religious grounds but not as an agnostic or atheist,” he says. “It shouldn’t always be about religion freedom. There may be other sections of the Charter that it might be fruitful to pursue [in defence of polygamy], including freedom of expression.”

But in light of the evidence known about Bountiful, Macfarlane stops short of giving full-throated support to striking down the ban. “I don’t feel that the state should be compelled to [officially] recognize polygamous relationships. I wouldn’t go that far,” he says. “The very gendered dimensions of these communities, as well as the harm that implicates the children, is why I personally find this such a difficult question.”

After the reference ruling upheld the polygamy ban, Peter Wilson was appointed in January as a special prosecutor to handle the Bountiful case. In late March, B.C.’s attorney general gave Wilson a mandate to consider polygamy charges.

This is good news for Bramham, who hopes Wilson will at least move forward on sexual abuse and forced marriage charges, but she remains wary. “There still is a lack of will, not among the police, but among the political and judicial class,” she says. “It has been a perfect storm of people minding their own business.”

Whether one is for or against the polygamy ban, what unites everyone in this debate is frustration over the government’s continuing inability to take any meaningful action to protect Bountiful’s residents — particularly the women and children. Bramham has scorn for the timid politicians who have let the situation fester. “If we can’t deal with a small community who are breaking the law, what does that mean?”  

Author's photo
Brian Platt is a master of journalism student at Carleton University.
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