On a B.C. commune called Bountiful, a Mormon sect keeps the world at bay
CRESTON – As I drove up to the Bountiful commune, three blond boys, about age 11, spotted me. They stopped — stunned, panic on their faces.
The day was hot. The air tasted of smoke from a brush fire south of the B.C.-Idaho border. Despite the heat, the boys were wearing long jeans and dark long-sleeve shirts, because the polygamists who run this Mormon fundamentalist community forbid the exposing of bare arms and legs.
The boys began scrambling up a trail to get away. They glanced furtively over their shoulders as they ran through the grass. They finally got to the top of a hill and slid under a rickety fence that surrounds Bountiful’s controversial, taxpayer-funded school.
An hour earlier, after trying repeatedly to reach the commune’s leaders by phone, I had finally contacted the principal of Bountiful’s school. Merrill Palmer told me his Canadian branch of the polygamist sect had recently developed a strict policy of refusing to speak to media. It was on the orders of the Arizona-based leader of the sect, which has more than 10,000 adherents in the U.S. and Canada.
“Things are very volatile right now,” the principal said.
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Taking a break?
Palmer told me I would not be allowed on the large Bountiful property, which is the last stop on a long, bumpy road that runs through farmland about seven kilometres south of Creston. The U.S. border is only metres away.
However, Palmer acknowledged he could not stop me from driving down to look at the property from the public road. Since Palmer asked what kind of vehicle I was driving and when I might pass by, I assume the boys ran away because he had told as many members as possible that a journalist was coming. Ex-members say Bountiful’s leaders frequently denounce outsiders, especially journalists, as “evil.”
Bountiful is more threatened today than it’s ever been in the 62 years since this breakaway sect from the mainstream Mormon church (which banned polygamy in the 1800s) moved north from the U.S. to establish a Bible-inspired colony here, hidden from the long arm of the law and monogamous conformity.
In the shadow of the astonishing cliff face of Skimmerhorn Mountain, which is part of the Purcell Mountain chain west of the Rocky Mountains, polygamist men have been trying to create their Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) version of the ideal world, heaven on Earth, where they could “go forth and multiply.” Many wives and many children are considered to be God’s blessing.
In April, however, the Canadian colony of almost 1,000 people, most of them children, was wrenched by the dethroning of the community’s once-undisputed temporal and religious leader, Bishop Winston Blackmore, who has 30 wives and more than 100 children.
Winston Blackmore was stripped of his considerable powers by Warren Jeffs of Colorado City, Arizona, who has taken over both the U.S. and Canadian arms of the colony following the death last year of his father and the sect’s main prophet, Rulon Jeffs.
Bountiful School’s principal acknowledges about half the Canadian colony, or about 500 people, have sided with Blackmore, including 28 of his 30 wives, nearly all his dozens of brothers and sisters and their many husbands and wives and children. Blackmore was in charge of Bountiful school. But no more.
“I’m a very outspoken person and I don’t want to get my neck in a noose,” said Palmer, Bountiful’s long-time principal. “But what’s happened is simple. We’re still with the church and Winston has opted to leave the church. Although 50 per cent of the Canadian members may have left with Winston, and a few Americans too, it’s only a small slice of the larger church.”
Blackmore, who also considers himself a prophet and many say a potential leader of the larger church, is a highly successful businessman in the Kootenays, owner of J.R. Blackmore and Sons, which has offices throughout the mountainous region. His operations include municipal garbage collection, logging, operating a sawmill, trucking, farming and ranching.
And, despite being defrocked and losing leadership of Bountiful, Blackmore is not going anywhere. His properties are mixed in with Bountiful’s extensive land holdings, which include the contentious low-slung elementary-secondary school that B.C. taxpayers fund with about $600,000 a year, or (following a funding formula used for all B.C.’s religious independent schools) roughly half its budget.
“The split is very ugly and creating a lot of hostility,” says Debbie Palmer, an ex-member who left the church in the early 1990s after being assigned as a teenager to become one of the multiple wives of, in sequence, three much older men.
She secretly keeps in contact with some some of Bountiful’s current female members, who she says are afraid to leave because they don’t want to lose their children.
“It’s very hard on the kids, especially. They were believing what Winston had told them for decades and then all of a sudden they’re being told Winston is the devil. Everyone’s having a hard time of it. There’s brother against sister. It’s really nasty.”
The polygamist sect, which is also called the United Effort Order, is currently involved in a series of court cases in the U.S and Canada.
In Utah, the state is prosecuting polygamist Rod Holm for bigamy and unlawful sex with an underage 16 year-old girl whom he considered his spiritual wife.
In B.C., there is a legal battle raging over whether Winston Blackmore has any rights to the school and other large chunks of land within the Bountiful commune.
As well, Debbie Palmer and other ex-wives last fall launched an unprecedented civil court action against the Mormon fundamentalist sect, arguing its polygamist practices lead to sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
In addition, B.C.-based Jancis Andrews, on behalf of the Canadian Federation of University Women, is aggressively lobbying Premier Gordon Campbell to stop funding the Bountiful school and clamp down on polygamy, which is illegal in Canada.
So far the government has failed to act, citing charter guarantees of freedom of religion and association.
But Andrews is not giving up. She alleges children are taught many unconscionable things at the school, including that blacks are inferior, females must not consider careers and that underage girls must marry and have sex with whomever the patriarch decrees.
Yet another source of rising pressure on Bountiful’s unorthodox religious idealism is coming from ex-multiple wife Mary Mackert, 51, author of a book titled The Sixth of Seven Wives.
Mackert created a buzz around Creston last month when she told an audience at the local Baptist Church she will set up a “safe house” for any girl or boy who tried to escape what she calls an autocratic and fear-filled sect that teaches that ex-members are doomed to hell.
Long-time resident Gary Pharness attended the meeting and supports Mackert. And even though Creston residents tend to be tolerant, even of the hundreds of rag-tag young fruit pickers who flood the valley every August, he thinks it might be time to do something about what’s going on at Bountiful.
Too many Kootenay residents don’t stand up and oppose the way young girls are required to marry older men at Bountiful “because they want to keep doing business with” the Mormon polygamists, Pharness said. “But I think it might be time to go after them for exploiting children.”
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Given the plague of afflictions descending on Bountiful from both within and without, the principal of Bountiful school took some delight in describing how the colony has kept nosy reporters at bay while members work out their problems on their own.
Although years ago I was allowed on to the Bountiful grounds and was able to profile Dalmin Oler, a man with five wives and 45 children, this time Merrill Palmer said no.
“We had a whole crew of TV guys fly out from Toronto to do a story on us. They thought they were going to surprise us. But we surprised them. And they had to get back on their plane and go home.”
Nevertheless, my tour along the edge of the Bountiful property offered some glimpses into the lifestyle of Mormon fundamentalist polygamists.
In front of the large hand-made “No Trespassing” sign outside a large Bountiful residence, I saw a group of blond boys, about four years old, cheerfully riding their bicycles. I was also able to see in the distance some mothers playing with their children near a pond. All the females wore knee-length dresses, in the name of modesty.
By the time I manoeuvred my vehicle around to try to talk to some of them, however, everyone had disappeared. Only the boys’ red, yellow and purple bikes remained abandoned on the road. A lone mother stared at me at a distance from the darkened doorway of the main residence, which looks like a low-cost roadside motel.
All that remained was the suddenly emptied Bountiful farm property — which included the grey, low-slung, rectangular school, a basketball court, a dried-up baseball field, weeping willows, fruit trees, a brook, horses, farming equipment, plastic riding toys, a school bus, vegetable garden, flower beds, log cabins, plywood-sided homes and a big white house that I later learned is where the colony’s many babies are born.
Later, in Creston’s huge main supermarket, I stumbled upon three women from Bountiful who were buying bulk food supplies at the check-out counter.
One wore granny glasses and had her hair in a tight bun. She spoke so softly and meekly the cashier could not hear her.
Another Bountiful wife wore a blue, ankle-length dress covered in a daisy pattern. She had blond braids down her back. Her long-dressed teenage daughter, however, spoke comfortably to another Creston teen, who was clearly not a Bountiful member because she was wearing shorts and bare arms.
When I approached one of the Bountiful women and identified myself to ask some questions, she nervously smiled, raised her hand to ward me off and walked away.
Winston Blackmore did not return phone calls. And it was also difficult to reach the man whom the U.S.-based leaders have named as head of the Canadian arm, Jim Oler.
When I phoned Oler’s home, a woman answered who identified herself as “Chantelle.” When I asked if she was Oler’s wife, she said, “It’s none of your business.”
When I eventually reached Oler at his office, he said, in a good-natured tone, “You can save your breath. You don’t need to ask me any questions.” He referred me to a sect lawyer and spokesman at the sect’s main compound on the Arizona-Utah border.
Sam Barlow, an adherent, and Rod Parker, a long-time sect lawyer who is not a member, told me by telephone the polygamists are frustrated with “curiosity seekers” who find “titillation” in trying to find out how men keep many wives (and not vice versa.)
Asked what it’s like for the polygamists to live, share and procreate far differently from mainstream society, Parker said, “My experience is people who do it find it very rewarding and challenging.” One big challenge, he said, is “managing multiple relationships.”
Barlow claimed the recent split has been “orderly.” Parker added Winston Blackmore was removed from his high office simply because Rulon Jeffs, the late head of the church, had “lost confidence” in him. They refused to elaborate.
The reluctance to deal with the media also infects people who have left the colony.
When I contacted Jane Blackmore, who was one of Winston’s many wives and until recently a midwife at the colony, she balked.
I asked her if there had been negative repercussions from when she had earlier spoken to the media, and she replied, “Too many.”
Before she hung up, Jane Blackmore said: “I’m going through a lot right now. I don’t want to talk to you.”
Lorna Blackmore, an ex-multiple wife who still has two daughters living at Bountiful, also said she felt the media were doing more harm than good. At first she said she didn’t want to speak, but she couldn’t stop herself from talking.
“They’ve had a very nasty split. It’s been like taking a knife through the community, because everybody’s related to everybody,” said Lorna Blackmore, who lives on a farm road just north of the colony.
“The people down there (in Bountiful) are very important to me. I have some very dear family there and as long as they’re there I’m there. There’s a lot of good people in there. My daughters are married to good men. They are very honest and hard-working and they love their kids.”
Still, Lorna Blackmore, who is a second cousin to Winston, says she sometimes worries — about such things as whether the colony’s children are being encouraged to stay in school.
She believes the taxpayer-funded Bountiful school is potentially the best thing that’s happened to the colony, because it could give youngsters the tools to understand the wider world.
“I’m live and let live. I think most people around here are. I’m not necessarily against polygamy, if people have choices about who they marry and it’s a genuine moral decision.
“But it’s not as easy life for anyone. The men have to be very good diplomats. For them, it can be like keeping three or four warring countries from fighting. And the women have to sacrifice a lot of feelings.”