Students from fundamentalist community bring new life to declining secular school
VANCOUVER — More than five decades after a fundamentalist group first moved to British Columbia’s remote Creston Valley to escape the temptations of the secular world, its children have been permitted to attend public school outside the colony.
The influx of at least 10 new pupils from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Yahk Elementary School in B.C.’s Kootenay Mountains has breathed new life into the small rural school located about 30 kilometres east of the fundamentalist enclave. The school was likely slated for closing because its enrolment dropped to just nine at the beginning of the fall term.
Then last month, the school was surprised — and thrilled — when a group of fundamentalist mothers showed up with their children in tow. Now enrolment is at 18.
So far, the children — whose traditional clothes include ankle-length dresses for girls and long-sleeved shirts for boys — have adapted well to a secular school environment, said Melanie Sommerfeldt, head of the Yahk Parent Advisory Council.
“It’s a monumental thing that’s going on,” said Ms. Sommerfeldt, who has a son in Grade 7.
“We’ve always wished they would come. And we thought: ‘Well, that will never happen.’ And now here it’s happening.”
The vast majority of the region’s fundamentalists live in Bountiful, a picturesque village of about 1,000 situated near the Idaho border. However, a recent schism in the church has prompted some residents to move to neighbouring communities, among them Yahk.
Rebecca Blair, vice-president of the Creston Valley Teachers’ Association, called the development “historic.”
At a community meeting in Yahk on Tuesday night, a group of fundamentalist mothers urged trustees to keep the school open.
For the first time, women were saying publicly that they want their children to be integrated with other children, Ms. Blair said.
“They said they wanted their children to be part of the greater community,” she said. “They were so brave. . . . It made my hair stand on end.”
Ms. Sommerfeldt said she hopes the influx of new children will persuade the school board to keep the Yahk school open.
“You’ve . . . got a group of people that you’ve been worried about their education for years,” Ms. Sommerfeldt said. “Now, they’re coming into the public school system. Why would you close it?”
Residents of Bountiful are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect that broke away from the Mormon church and is based in Utah and Arizona. The sect practices polygamy and Bountiful’s former leader, Winston Blackmore, is said to have nearly 30 wives and to have sired 100 children.
The community has been fraught with internal power struggles in recent years. In 2002, Mr. Blackmore was ousted on the orders of Warren Jeffs, who ruled the church from a secretive compound in Colorado City, Ariz.
Under Mr. Jeffs’s rule, the church grew more strict and contact with outsiders was forbidden.
In B.C., more than half of Bountiful’s 1,000 residents sided with Mr. Blackmore, who still lives in the village. In recent years, he has eased up on the strict rules governing daily life.
Last spring, he invited reporters to Bountiful to film and speak with residents, which was never permitted in previous years.
Mr. Blackmore is also the head of the Mormon Hills School, an independent facility that has been criticized. The school goes only to Grade 10 and there have been allegations the curriculum condones racism.
For example, one of the tenets of the church is that blacks are a subhuman species, akin to animals.
Mr. Blackmore could not be reached for comment yesterday. However, in an interview at his Creston office last spring, he defended Bountiful’s schools and denied that racism is taught there.
All the fundamentalist children now enrolled in the Yahk school were previously signed up for lessons in the Mormon Hills School.
In the interview earlier this year, Mr. Blackmore argued the community has been built around farming and logging, neither of which requires advanced education.
“To think everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer,” he said. “It would be nice, but it’s not practical.”