YAHK, British Columbia — The 16 new pupils at two-room Yahk Elementary School are wary of strangers in case they are unbelievers, apostates, journalists – anyone their church elders consider evil.
Their mothers, mostly pale and plump with hair swept back in stiff pioneer hairdos, cast their eyes down and evade questions as they pick up their kids. With their polygamous sect divided and one of its leaders wanted by the FBI, the media spotlight is all the more unwelcome.
But not to Rita Palmer. Four of her eight children are among this year’s newcomers, and she’s eager to set the record straight: “We’re normal. We’re not brainwashed.”
Palmer, 34, and several other mothers of children at Yahk belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that quit the Mormon Church in Utah after Mormonism banned polygamy in 1890. Frustrated in the confines of their secretive community, and too busy to home-school their many children, they have done the unthinkable – put their kids into Canada’s secular public school system.
They have moved them out of Mormon Hills, the school on their religious compound in Bountiful, whose two leaders are feuding for control and are under investigation on suspicion of sexual abuse and child trafficking.
One of those leaders, Warren Jeffs, has just been placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, a fugitive right up there with Osama bin Laden. His rivalry with Winston Blackmore has split Bountiful and is pitting fathers against daughters and brothers against sisters.
Palmer and the other mothers bear no resemblance to the seductive and sly Hollywood actresses in “Big Love,” the HBO drama series about a polygamous marriage. What they share is husbands – though Rita says hers has yet to take another wife – and the desire to follow their faith in the heavenly virtues of polygamy.
Some have moved away altogether from Bountiful, just north of the Idaho border and at the foot of the towering Skimmerhorn Mountains in eastern British Columbia, and are attempting to live among the townspeople of nearby Yahk, Creston and Kitchener. They include Palmer, who moved to Kitchener because her husband has a job with one of Blackmore’s lumber companies.
Yahk Elementary is tucked tightly between railroad tracks and a ridge of evergreen trees, near the Cozy Quilt Motel and the Horny Owl Saloon in this once-booming mill town of 400 people.
“This little school is working as a catalyst of hope,” said Linda Allred, Yahk’s lone teacher. “The public school policy is to accept everyone – Muslim, Buddhist, Catholics – and they don’t question their religion or dress.”
“I don’t agree with polygamy,” she said, but “there are so many other things that are positive about their lifestyle.”
John Kettle, director of the administrative district that includes Yahk Elementary, says: “You can’t punish the child for their father’s sins. I think they’re really reaching out and I think the community in Yahk is reaching right back.”
The newcomers are Yahk Elementary’s salvation. It had only three pupils and needed at least 10 to qualify for public funding. Slated to shut down this school year, it instead got 16 Bountiful kids and 14 more are registered for the coming school year.
“We don’t feel like we rescued anyone; we’re feeling more like the teachers rescued us,” said Palmer. “I wanted them (her children) to experience meeting other people that weren’t from our church, mingling with the Yahk community. It’s almost like a student-exchange program.”
This attitude also scores points with the outside world for Winston Blackmore by portraying him as more mainstream and moderate than Jeffs, whose supporters refuse to talk to reporters.
About half of Bountiful’s 1,000 people follow Blackmore while the rest go with Jeffs, a self-declared prophet, as do some 10,000 adherents in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and a growing enclave in Texas.
Jeffs, 50, was indicted last June in Arizona on charges of sexual assault and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct on a minor. His adherents live in a compound outside Eldorado, Texas, where a dozen concrete and log buildings surround a fortress-like temple.
The Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, formally named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, excommunicates polygamists. It complains that some U.S. news organizations have misled the public by referring to believers in Bountiful as Mormons.
It issued a statement saying “Warren Jeffs and polygamist groups have no association whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The polygamists’ presence in Canada dates back more than a century. It started with breakaways who moved here after the Mormons banned polygamy, even though Ottawa had outlawed the practice in 1878. Bountiful was founded in 1947 by four families to follow the original teaching of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who glorified plural marriages.
The atmosphere in Bountiful feels fraught. Few are willing to criticize Jeffs’ group outright, but the grief over the family splits caused by the feud is noticeable. Equally evident is the effort the Blackmore group makes to portray its existence as harmless and the children normal.
Susie Palmer, Rita’s sister, took The Associated Press on a quick tour of the Mormon Hills school, where she is a college-certified art and music teacher. She showed off the school’s computer lab and talked about the hot dog sale to raise money for the school band.
A 40-year-old mother of nine children and four grandkids, she says she has no qualms about Rita leaving the compound and sending her children to public school. However, she believes Bountiful’s two private schools – Mormon Hills with about 140 pupils, and the Jeffs camp’s Bountiful Elementary-Secondary with about 200 – are equally good and deserve their combined $809,485 in public funding this school year.
Taxpayer and human rights groups allege that both schools teach racism and use an outdated curriculum. Palmer insists Mormon Hills is like any other school, saying, “We have to pass inspection or we don’t get the funding.”
The compound looks like any no-frills midwest farm – barns and pickup trucks, motel-like housing for the families – but its division is reflected in Bountiful Elementary-Secondary, up the hill and off-limits to Blackmore followers.
“My father is the bishop of that community and my mother is the high school teacher there,” Palmer said wistfully, pointing up the hill. Does she have contact with them? “Minimal.”
Palmer’s husband has four other wives and she is married to one of Rita’s brothers. Walking into a Mormon Hills classroom, she mentions that the fourth-grade teacher is another of her mothers. The dozen kids are polite as they study grammar and copy text on the blackboard: “In the summer of 1846 thousands of saints traveled to Iowa …”
The benign classroom scene stands in contrast to the gloomy scenario sketched by Rita’s other sister Debbie Palmer, a former Bountiful resident and stepmother of Blackmore, who is helping investigators.
Jeffs’ whereabouts are unknown, but Palmer says that if the self-declared prophet is in the Texas compound, “I’ve got a horrible sense of doom … because I don’t believe that he’s going to give himself up without having a lot of people go down with him.”
Jeffs’ father, Rulon, was the group’s “prophet” until his death in 2002, after which his son declared himself president of their multimillion dollar business empire.
To reinforce his power, Jeffs excommunicated hundreds of men he felt weren’t loyal or religious enough, tossed them from businesses and homes and reassigned their wives and children to other men. Blackmore was one of the excommunicated, but refused to go.
The FBI recently announced a $100,000 reward for Jeffs’ arrest, adding to bounties offered by the Utah and Arizona attorneys general. The attorneys general are also investigating whether to prosecute Bountiful members for sex abuse and trafficking in child brides. Canada’s national police force has yet to file any charges. Its spokesman in Vancouver , Staff Sgt. John Ward, said an 18-month review of activities in Bountiful is now in the hands of two investigators to determine whether any crimes have been committed.
“Really what we’re dealing with is rumor and innuendo, and we’re trying to determine if there’s any truth to that,” Ward said. “But very few people have come forward to supply us with information.”
Blackmore insists: “We’re just some people trying to make sense out of the fundamentals of our faith.” If anything is wrong, he told the AP in Vancouver, “we’d be the first people to correct those issues.”
Blackmore, 49, is estimated by Bountiful defectors, including Debbie Palmer, to have 28 wives and 102 children, but he won’t confirm it.
Debbie Palmer lives in Saskatchewan, saying she fled Bountiful in 1988 when she believed her third husband was sexually interested in her 13-year-old daughter. Now 51, she says she was given as the sixth wife to a 57-year-old man when she was 15 and had five other “mothers” besides her biological one, 46 siblings, three husbands, eight children and 86 stepchildren – one of whom is Winston Blackmore.
Palmer, the author of “Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy,” believes as many as 80 teenage girls from the U.S. branches of the sect have been sent to marry older men at Bountiful, and that most went willingly.
Girls are taught that the more senior and polygamous their husband is, the better their and their children’s chances are of a happy afterlife.
“There’s a kind of power attached to that,” Debbie Palmer said in a telephone interview, “when you’re looking at the next life and the eternal perspective, when you’re in the daily trenches and up to your arms in dirty diapers.”
Associated Press writer Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver contributed to this report.