A polygamous sect in Bountiful, B.C. under scrutiny for its treatment of women has used its young men and women as a cheap source of labour, according to court documents and a former church member.
Dozens of young people – some from the Fundamentalist [Church of Jesus Christ of] Latter Day Saints sect in Bountiful but others from the United States – were sent to Sundre, Alta. to work for a post, timber and logging operation, said Truman Oler.
They worked for low pay, long hours and in isolation. But the young people had little choice because their futures were dependent on the sect leaders’ decisions, he said.
Oler said he believed if he followed the rules, he would be assigned a wife and be able to build a home. He later quit both the job in Sundre and the polygamous sect.
The forestry operation was initially run by Blackmore and Sons, and later taken over by Oler Bros., both of which are Bountiful fundamentalist sect companies. Winston Blackmore is the bishop of the Fundamentalist [Church of Jesus Christ of] Latter Day Saints in Bountiful.
The Alberta operation – which went bankrupt in 2009 – was little more than a slave labour camp, alleged Nancy Mereska, who started Stop Polygamy Canada after seeing a documentary on polygamy in Bountiful in 2003.
The story of the young people in Alberta, as Oler’s account reveals, is one of low pay, long hours and isolation. Occasionally, a young man would be kicked out for breaking the rules; some would leave on their own. Known as “lost boys,” they were left to cope with no family support, no financial support and little education.
Experts who gave evidence last winter in a B.C. court reference on the legality of polygamy noted that surplus young men are often sent away to work to reduce the competition for young wives desired by the older men — as well as provide cheap labour.
A judgment is expected soon in the B.C. court reference that will determine the legality of polygamy under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. […]
Oler says he earned $60 every two weeks at first and that went up to $100 every two weeks when he turned 18 — well below minimum wage. When he worked for Blackmore and Sons, sometimes he was issued a cheque which he was asked to sign and hand back to his boss. He says he never saw the cash. When Oler Brothers took over, his pay went up. […]
Oler also noticed young men from FLDS communities in Utah turned up at the site — rebellious teenagers sent on a “reform mission.”
A strict regimen of long hours, hard work, no pay and teachings from righteous older men was supposed to put them back on track, said Oler.
In October 1997, another unusual new arrival — 14-year-old Teressa Wall, from Salt Lake City — turned up. When Utah FLDS leaders told her it was time for her to marry, she refused. She was banned from her family home and sent to Bountiful until she would repent. […]
She was often told: “You could end all this if you would just get married,” she noted. For nearly two years, she refused and continued working along with two of her brothers from Utah.
University of Alberta professor Steve Kent, an expert in cults, says there’s no easy way for a community to deal with a church like FLDS that arrives on its doorstep, especially if its members are well behaved.
“It didn’t seem there were any public issues with the FLDS people and, absent those issues, it’s difficult to know what a local community could do,” said Kent, who also testified at the B.C court reference last spring.
It’s not the job of a county or town council to enforce criminal laws, said Kent.
The provincial government, however, should have kept a closer eye, given the reports of poor working conditions and low pay, he said.
“It’s very clear the government has a responsibility to monitor labour conditions including proper payment for a day’s work.”
“The province let these young people down,” said Kent.
In some countries, governments take a more active role in monitoring cults, says Kent. But in Canada, it’s left up to private groups like Stop Polygamy Canada.