Tucked away in the shadow of fortress-like mountains of southeast British Columbia, the town of Bountiful has managed to somehow avoid the wrath of Canadian law for over 50 years despite openly practising polygamy.
Despite Canadian laws against the practice of plural marriage existing since 1890, Bountiful has managed to thrive, almost doubling its population to over 1,000 in the past decade. All are believed to be descendants of six men.
Winston Blackmore is the defacto religious leader of the town, despite being excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) in 2002 following a power struggle with the sect’s prophet Warren Jeffs. Jeffs has since been jailed in Utah for being an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry a 19-year-old.
Blackmore has rather openly defied Canadian laws, marrying over 25 women according to his first wife and arranging dozens of polygamous marriages in the town. While Blackmore hasn’t revealed the exact number of wives he has, he has openly admitted to having more than one wife.
But while Canadians see American authorities cracking down on the polygamous sect, such as the recent raid on Eldorado, Texas where over 400 children, including at least one Canadian, were taken into custody — there has not been similar action here.
That inaction lies at the heart of Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham’s thoroughly researched book, “The Secret Lives of Saints: The Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect.”
She describes a world that seems impossible to comprehend existing in Canada: a government-funded school whose main mission is to “teach the supremacy of plural marriage and prepare students for marriage”; teenage boys allegedly used as cheap labour for Blackmore’s multi-million dollar companies; and of course, teenage girls being married off to much-older men.
Bramham has been one of the foremost critics of the B.C. and federal government’s policies ever since she received an angry email in April 2004, asking her why she was writing about the trafficking of Asian women but not the injustice against polygamist women in Canada.
Canadian identity to blame?
In an interview with CTV.ca, Bramham puts the blame, among other things, on an over-emphasis on accepting all cultural practices under the guise of Canadian multiculturalism and a lack of political will.
“There’s just no public outcry,” Bramham says as one of the reasons for the political inaction.
Early in her book, she points out the obvious irony in Canada claiming to be fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan, but allowing a polygamist sect to exist freely in our backyard.
“We are supposed to have human rights for every woman,” Bramham points out.
She adds that by Canada allowing such a patriarchal system to go unchecked, “My rights as a woman are being eroded.” And while Bramham will say that polygamy “can work” for consenting adults, it is always “inherently abusive” for the children.
She says children grow up viciously competing with their numerous siblings (Blackmore is believed to have about 100 children), not to mention the multiple sister-wives, for the attention of their father.
“You are never (considered) special,” Bramham says of the children.
It’s not as if the issue has somehow managed avoid government attention, either.
A 2005 position paper published by Canadian government under the Status for Women Canada department clearly recommended that “The Criminal Code s. 293, making it an offence to enter into a polygamous marriage or live in a polygamous union in Canada, should be maintained.”
The report also recommended (aiming at the B.C. government) that government funding for education that supports polygamy should be denied.
The Charter of Rights
Bountiful’s continued existence can be almost directly attributed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Indeed, Blackmore has even put a framed copy of the document on his office’s wall as Bramham points out in her book.
He believes that the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of religion would trump any clause in the Criminal Code. And he’s not only one.
This is because in 1992, the B.C. government effectively legalized polygamy, saying that laying polygamy charges would probably be in conflict with the Charter.
However, as Bramham argues, it seems the government went from A to C, as they refused to actually put the question to the Court.
“We’re too tolerant,” she says of Canadians. “We are unwilling to make value judgments on other cultures.”
Spurned perhaps, by the round-the-clock media coverage of the raid of the Texan polygamist temple, there appears to be movement on the issue lately in B.C.
Special prosecutor Leonard Doust has recommended to the B.C. government that they put the legality of Canada’s polygamy laws before the B.C. Court of Appeal. But B.C Attorney General Wally Oppal does not have to heed Doust’s recommendation.
And on April 25, Vancouver-area NDP Dawn Black wrote to Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson saying that the federal government needs to abandon its hands-off approach to Bountiful.
“As an advocate of women’s and children’s rights, I strongly oppose the polygamy practiced in Bountiful, and I share the concerns of many Canadians about the treatment of young girls there,” Black wrote.
She recommended that Canada use the new consent laws — which changed the legal age of consent from 14 to 16 as an avenue of cracking down on polygamy.
Blackmore denies that girls as young as 14 are married off to anyone. But Bramham says that those who have escaped from Bountiful say otherwise, not to mention the cases proved in U.S. courts from FLDS marriages in that country.
The future of polygamy
Without a constitutional challenge to test Canada’s polygamy laws, the issue’s future is truly up in the air.
But Bramham says that those in Bountiful aren’t the only ones with their eyes keenly tuned to the issue.
She claims that some Canadian Muslims immigrated from societies that practice polygamy and may wish to again.
“They are looking to Bountiful as a litmus test,” she said. “This is a much larger political issue.”
With B.C’s Oppal saying that a decision could be made soon on whether to put polygamy before the courts, and the Foreign Affairs department answering calls about a Canadian polygamist child in Texas, it’s not an issue on the backburner anymore — and certainly not going away anytime soon.