In the scenic international border region where Idaho’s Panhandle meets British Columbia, polygamy is a way of life for hundreds – the open secret that’s gone untouched by authorities until now.
The arrests in Canada last month of two fundamentalist Mormon leaders are bringing renewed interest to their polygamous communities near Creston, B.C., and loyal followers living just across the border in Idaho’s Boundary County.
Winston Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, who now head factions of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Canada, face prison terms if convicted of violating that country’s polygamy laws. They are scheduled to enter not-guilty pleas this week in Creston. Their trials likely are months away.
Their polygamist sect has been living in the southeast corner of British Columbia for almost 60 years without legal challenge by Canadian authorities. Two FLDS schools, with some students from Boundary County, get almost $1 million a year from the Canadian government.
The move into North Idaho by FLDS members began in 2003 after a leadership split in the Canadian community.
By conservative estimates, there are at least a half-dozen polygamous families – about 100 men, women and children – living in Boundary County, even though polygamy is banned by the Idaho Constitution. One ex-member says the number in Boundary County could approach 300.
The FLDS community of Bountiful, B.C., is the “polygamy capital of Canada” – that country’s “dirty secret” where underage marriages and child abuse have gone untouched, according to author and Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham, who has written extensively about the sect.
She and other experts are uncertain why the criminal case was brought with the dawning of 2009, but increased media coverage and public interest appear to have put pressure on politicians.
“There’s a greater realization now within the local community around Bountiful that what’s going on out there isn’t right,” Bramham said last week.
“For a very long time, people were content to believe that because the young women they saw in town with all the children were happy and healthy, everything was OK. The businesspeople were also content to take Winston Blackmore’s word that everything was OK – especially since Blackmore and his companies were spending considerable amounts of money in the community.”
That changed, Bramham said, with the recent departure of Jane Blackmore, Winston’s first and only legal wife. She is a well-respected midwife who has received civic recognition.
“When she left and spoke out about 15- and 16-year-old girls having babies, people listened and paid attention,” said Bramham, who wrote about the group in “The Secret Lives of Saints.”
Already the landmark criminal case is drawing national attention in Canada, with legal scholars saying it will test that country’s polygamy laws.
Others support the view of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who is remembered for saying the government has no business in people’s bedrooms.
Former members of the sect, however, say the government has an obligation to investigate and prosecute child neglect and abuse, including reports that teenage girls – some as young as 14 – are forced into arranged marriages with men 40 and 50 years old.
If Blackmore and Oler are convicted of practicing polygamy in Canada, no one is ready to predict what impact that may have on their followers in Boundary County, where polygamous households are common knowledge.
Elsewhere, there are an estimated 10,000 FLDS members living in the adjoining communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.; in Eldorado, Texas; in Edgemont, S.D.; and in the tiny Colorado communities of Cotopaxi, Florence and Mancos.
Followers adhere to the early-day teachings of the Mormon Church. The only way to heaven, they believe, is if men have multiple “celestial wives,” bearing as many children as possible.
The modern-day LDS church renounced polygamy in 1890, allowing Utah to gain statehood. The church denounces the FLDS movement, even though plural marriage theology remains in its “doctrine and covenants.” Elder Quentin L. Cook, an apostle and spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said modern-day Mormons “have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect.”
While the number of FLDS followers in North Idaho appears to be growing, their presence hasn’t caught the attention of many residents.
Darrell Kerby, the 57-year-old former mayor of Bonners Ferry, has lived his entire life in that community. He didn’t realize polygamists were his neighbors until he recently read Jon Krakauer’s book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which details the history of Mormon fundamentalists.
Kerby said law enforcement is in a confounding situation. Although polygamy is illegal, the Idaho Legislature changed state law a few years ago, no longer recognizing “common law marriages.” The only legal marriages in Idaho are those between a man and a woman, backed with a state-issued license. Marriage partners must be 18, or 16 with parental approval.
Investigating potential crimes within the FLDS community is further compounded, Kerby said, because members of the group are secretive, midwives tend to home births, and many infants don’t immediately have birth certificates.
Idaho state welfare officials reportedly have investigated potential benefits fraud by FLDS members, but no criminal cases have materialized.
Meanwhile, federal law enforcement agents are watchful for “human trafficking” cases involving teenage girls in the group, transferred from FLDS communities in Canada to those in the United States. But so far, there have been no federal prosecutions in the United States.