Polygamists defend lifestyle

Commune and town of Creston co-exist in a delicate economic balance

CRESTON, B.C — Winston K. Blackmore has 26 wives. Or 27, 29 or even more depending on who’s telling the story. The 47-year-old polygamist himself would only allow he had “less than 20,” a number sneered at as low by those who claim inside knowledge of Blackmore’s affairs. “Having more than one wife is totally normal,” argued Blackmore, who reckons he has between “30 and 40″ brothers and sisters through different relationships his dad had with wives, or “sister-wives,” as they call each other.

“I’m a product of this religion and this is my lifestyle.”

Until recently, Blackmore — self-proclaimed Bishop of Bountiful, a community of about 1,000 just south of Creston, B.C. — was near omnipotent.

The man, rumoured to have at least 30 wives and more than 100 kids, was chief executive officer of all Bountiful’s business interests and trustee of 320 hectares of property. He controlled all the cash and most aspects of the lives of his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) followers, which is not connected to the mainstream Mormon Church.

FLDS

The FLDS is also considered to be a cult of Christianity. Sociologically,the group is a high-control cult.

However, his power has been weakened in the beautiful little community sandwiched between lush fruit orchards and the face of the Skimmerhorn Mountains.

The polygamist society has been ripped in two, divided by a bitter leadership fight that split families and pit neighbour against neighbour in Canada and the U.S.

Added to those woes is the recent announcement by B.C. General Attorney Geoff Plant that a special law-enforcement task force has been appointed to look into charges of sexual exploitation, child abuse and forced marriages of young women to men who are sometimes three times their age.

While rumours of such abuse on Bountiful have persisted for years, Mounties claim they never received enough needed evidence to spawn a police investigation.

“I’m hesitant to say nothing was going on there, but there were no complaints that prompted an investigation,” said RCMP Staff Sgt. Jim Delnea, who worked several years as Creston’s top cop before moving to Hope, B.C., in 2000.

While Bountiful and Blackmore were the subjects of RCMP investigations in the 1990s, no charges were ever laid.

“At the time, (police) were trying to prove I had more than one wife,” Blackmore recalled. “I said, ‘Right, I do. Now go away.’”

The cocky attitude comes from legally backed knowledge he’s protected by section 2A of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees his right to practise his religion without fear of reprisal.

A few years ago, the B.C. government surveyed some of the best legal minds in the country to determine if they’d win a court case challenging the polygamist lifestyle, Blackmore said.

“The word came back that the case would go to the Supreme Court (of Canada) and they’d lose miserably,” Blackmore said, unable to keep a grin from his face.

“I love the Canadian charter,” Blackmore said during a rare interview.

Sun reporter Mike D’Amour and photographer Carlos Amat recently spent several days in Creston and Bountiful to learn more about the polygamists and their way of life.

Do the residents there, specifically the men, deserve to be arrested for flouting the anti-polygamy law that has been part of the Canadian Criminal Code since 1892?

Or, should they be allowed to live according to their religious beliefs?

Those are just a couple of fundamental questions people in B.C. — and now in the rest of Canada — are asking about Bountiful. So far, the answers haven’t been straightforward.

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Bountiful, B.C., is not on any map. There are no signs that proclaim: Polygamists 20 km.

Trying to find the tract of land home to about 1,000 polygamy-practising Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is tough, made even more so when one asks for directions.

“Why do you want to go to Bountiful?” is invariably asked by shopkeeps in the stores of Creston, about 520 km southwest of Calgary.

“They’re good people out there and they don’t want to be bothered by reporters,” one woman said.

After a couple of days, the hostility made sense. In Creston, a town of about 5,000 nestled in some of the most alluring land in the East Kootenays, no one wants to upset the delicate economic balance.

Creston is a town with few summer attractions, yet boldly attempts to lure tourist dollars.

Sure, Kokanee beer is brewed there, but aside from the few fruit stands that catch the fancy of travellers and motorcyclists just passing through, there’s little to warrant a stop in Creston unless it’s to top up a gas tank.

So, to alienate the 1,000 or so cash-carrying customers of Bountiful could mean financial suicide to those who own mom-and-pop-style businesses.

There are already enough boarded windows and “For Lease” signs on the main drag as it is: Live-and-let-live, no matter how uneasily, seems to be the unofficial motto.

On the other side of the Bountiful coin are people who don’t own businesses but won’t give directions because — as one woman summed it up succinctly — “those sickos don’t need any more free publicity.”

However, fuelled by a recent B.C. government announcement of a special investigations unit preparing to storm the community and look into allegations of forced marriages, child abuse and sexual exploitation, the public spotlight on the insular community — where inter-marriages can end up causing a woman to be the stepmother to her own stepmother — is just warming up.

That’s the furthest thing from what the founding fathers of Bountiful wanted.

In the late 1940s, the pioneering group was living in the Cardston and Rosemary areas of Alberta when they decided to join a fundamental off-shoot of the Mormon Church that advocated polygamy.

The group headed west, looking for an isolated spot where they could practise multiple marriages with no interference from the law.

While they still call themselves members of the FLDS, the Mormon Church does not recognize them as part of its membership.

The founders settled in Lister — it’s been known as Bountiful for less than two decades — and spent more than 40 years unmolested by the outside world.

But in 1990 the sect was “discovered” by journalists titillated by the polygamists and their lifestyle after a male member of the group was charged with sexual abuse and sexual assault.

“I didn’t even know we were lost,” Winston Blackmore, who until recently was the sole leader of the community, said from his offices in downtown Creston.

Blackmore is nearing 50, but his smooth face appears almost cherubic at times.

He makes steady eye contact from behind round wire-frame glasses and, on this day, he wore a ball cap pushed back on his head, farmer style.

The charismatic man — described by other writers as having a rock-star persona — sat in a sparsely furnished office with a picture of an elk prominently displayed on one wall next to one of his most prized possessions: a framed copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is that very piece of paper that keeps him from jail. Still, he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“I have no idea why there’s a fascination with polygamy — why would that titillate anyone?” Blackmore said.

“For those who think we have more wives to have more sex, well, that’s ridiculous.”

Blackmore said polygamy is practised by some Canadians who aren’t even aware of it. “I don’t think people are against polygamous relationships,” he said.

“Look, if a person is getting a divorce and is with someone before that’s final, that’s polygamy.”

But Blackmore said it’s all easily forgiven and the rest of the world should be as tolerant as he. “I deal with people who are part of the gay community, but that doesn’t affect business, because I let them be who they are,” he said.

Yet, allegations of sexual and child abuse of girls as young as 13 must be looked into, and Blackmore has gone on the record stating he will fully co-operate with the authorities who will be investigating criminal complaints against some members of Bountiful.

“For me to say there haven’t been cases of spousal and child abuse, well that’s beyond any reasoning,” he said.

“But if you draw a circle in Calgary with 800 people inside — take 800 people anywhere — then tell me there’s no child or sex abuse there.”

Ruth Palmer is one of several wives of a Bountiful man and said the recent allegations are unfounded.

“I know of no mistreated children in Bountiful,” the 42-year-old Creston garden centre owner told the Sun.

Palmer said members of her community are liked and well-respected by those in Creston. “We love who we are and we’re not involved in sick orgies,” she said.

Wild sex is just one of the misconceptions about the polygamist lifestyle, added Marlene Palmer. “The thought that we women are subservient is also a myth,” she said.

“So is the thought that this whole thing is about sex; there’s got to be more to marriage than that or it won’t work.

“Not to say that’s not good,” she said with a reserved smile, “but that’s not all there is.”

Another fallacy is all the women connected in a spousal relationship with one man are wives, she said.

“We’re mistresses, come on now, what else are we?”

The bottom line, said Marlene, is the people of Bountiful are simply who they are and want no part of any other society.

“I know what goes on in the real world. At around age 11 they start experimenting and playing around with sex.

“When they turn 16, they get better at it and start playing with drugs and alcohol.”

It’s better to live in Bountiful, she said.

“The fact is we’re human beings and we choose to live the way we do; now leave us alone.”

While Palmer and the rest paint a Xanadu-esque picture of Bountiful, there’s trouble brewing on those 320 hectares.

A power struggle erupted about two years ago and things haven’t been the same since.

It began in 2002 when the breakaway Mormon sect’s top man, Rulon Jeffs, died.

Blackmore seemed to be the heir apparent, but was shattered when his mentor’s son, Warren Jeffs, of Colorado City, Ariz. — who’s being sued by his nephew on accusations he molested him in the basement of a Sunday school more than a decade ago — got the nod to dictate to the 6,000 or so FLDS members in Canada and the U.S.

Now the once tightly-knit community is divided between those in Blackmore’s camp and those opposed to him.

That conflicting group is led by Blackmore’s own nephew, Jim Oler, who did not return calls for an interview.

Jeffs has been accused of ruling with an iron fist and seems to excommunicate members of his flock at a whim, some say to solidify his power by removing any perceived threats to his supremacy.

But Jeffs’ ruling style has alienated many FLDS members in the U.S., and experts agree many of them may find their way to Bountiful and Blackmore.

The opposing factions in Bountiful do not speak to each other — three of Blackmore’s own brothers are against him.

It’s a situation made even more difficult when the opponents sometimes live side by side. The situation could turn deadly in a heartbeat, said Creston’s mayor.

“Winston has been warned several times by the RCMP not to cross the border into the States because his life is in danger,” said Joe Snopek.

Blackmore seemed unconcerned about threats to his life as he gave a quick tour of Bountiful, a community normally closed to outsiders, or “evil gentiles” as the polygamists call non-believers.

The entrance to the community does not offer a warm welcome; there are signs warning people to stay out.

As he guided his pickup through Bountiful streets dotted with presentable homes, well-manicured lawns, a school, a church and other trappings central to all communities, Blackmore pointed out who was for — and against — him. “If you were here without me, that guy’d rip you a new one,” he’d say over and over, pointing to men in half-tons or to houses where his opponents live.

Every now and then people driving the other way would wave a single index finger at him. “Sometimes I get the Trudeau wave,” Blackmore joked, referring to the former prime minister’s well-documented middle finger gesture.

Bare limbs are offensive to the people of Bountiful. Men wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to the level of the soles of their shoes.

Women adhere to a dress code that decrees they wear long-sleeved, high-collared, pioneer-style, ankle-length dresses.

The women’s hair is long and, more often than not, braided or in a topknot bun, making them easy to spot on the streets of downtown Creston.

Last week, many of them were tending children or seemed to be in mid- or late-pregnancy.

“So what,” said Snopek. “Lots of girls outside of Bountiful have three or four kids and they’re only 20 — what’s the difference?”

Snopek is another Crestonite who believes in the live-and-let-live philosophy. “I credit Winston with selling his community to Creston and the rest of the world,” he said. “What’s the difference between them and the gay lifestyle? They’ve taken their place in the community.”

The delicate economic balance of the small town was restored when the Bountiful wives returned to shop at local businesses.

No one in the polygamous community would give an exact number when it came to telling of how many wives the men there have.

What is known is men are married to their first wives in the usual, lawful fashion.

All subsequent “marriages” are “celestial” unions, ceremonies with little pomp that are recognized by members of the FLDS as binding in the eyes of God.

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