B.C. commune is home to sect
Polygamist group investigated earlier
“The groundswell of public concern has reached a point where government and the police, in my view, have an obligation to act,” Attorney-General Geoff Plant said in an interview yesterday. “It’s a priority to investigate the many allegations being made.”
Bountiful, a community of about 1,000 people near Cranbrook in southeastern B.C., has long been the subject of allegations of sexual abuse and of teenaged girls being made concubines or “celestial wives” of men who are much older and already have several other wives.
Although polygamy is illegal in Canada, the B.C. government has been reluctant to act. It has obtained two legal opinions that said the group, a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, could likely successfully argue the law violates a person’s right to freedom of religion.
But Plant said one of the keys in the government moving now is a letter he got in May — the first-hand account of a woman who said she was abused at Bountiful. That let him “engage some of my colleagues in more active discussions of what we ought to do here.”
The B.C. education ministry, which gives about $500,000 a year in grants to the schools there, is also concerned about allegations the schools teach racism and white supremacy.
“What truly offends the majority of people who hear about these allegations goes beyond the question of multiple marriages,” he said. “It includes suggestions there are children who are being sexually exploited, girls being transported across the border, and so on.
“If supported by the facts, these charges would have no constitutional challenge.”
Bountiful was established in the rugged area north of the border with Idaho in the late 1940s. It has flourished despite the allegations, which included an RCMP investigation more than a decade ago that urged charges be laid. The province did not heed the recommendation.
James Oler, the head of the commune which believes that to enter heaven men must take three or more wives and have as many children as possible, did not return the Star’s call.
The community has also been the subject of civil court actions, one of them led by Debbie Palmer, a woman with eight children from three assigned marriages, who fled in 1988.
It is Palmer’s letter to Plant that has given the impetus for the government to act.
Jancis Andrews, a women’s rights campaigner who helped Palmer write the letter, said in an interview that news of police investigating Bountiful is “welcome and very long overdue.”
She said polygamy is “the poisonous root” of all the problems that the police will be investigating and must be ended.
“This is a cult, a totally medieval, screwed up, grotesque philosophy,” she said. “And, I truly believe that when the public realizes the gross injustices and contraventions of human rights that are taking place there, it will have to be done away with.”
July 24, 2004
Daniel Girard, Western Canada Bureau