Polygamous groups will continue to function without fear of punishment if the federal government does not review current laws, a former polygamous community member says.
In 1988, Debbie Palmer left such a religious sect that practised polygamy.
She told CTV’s Canada AM polygamous groups continue to survive in a “vacuum” because they do not anticipate punishment for these unions, which federal laws deem illegal. Palmer is currently with the Committee Concerned with Child Abuse in Polygamy.
Palmer herself was only 15 years old when her father “assigned” her to marry a 55-year-old man in Bountiful, British Columbia. Palmer says she didn’t question the union and believed it to be a “really great thing.”
She was her husband’s sixth wife. Some men in Bountiful have 30 wives, and as many as 80 children each, she says.
“We really did believe that that was the right thing to do, particularly the aspect of being married to an older man,” she said.
“(Marrying) someone considered to be the leader for the Canadian polygamist group was a really great thing to happen to any young person.”
When her first husband passed away, she was assigned to marry another older man.
It was only after there was a split in the leadership of the group and after Palmer noticed children were being abused that she realized, “God could have nothing to do with what was happening. So I needed to get out of there with my children because they were being abused as well.”
The large number of children and lack of caregivers meant children often went unsupervised, she said.
“It leaves it wide open for all kinds of situations of abuse and traumas that could otherwise be prevented… It was also extremely hard for women who end up competing for the time and attention of the husband.”
Palmer has since left the town behind, but the community members have continued to carry on with polygamous practices.
The polygamy debate ignited when Conservative leader Stephen Harper raised questions about a Liberal study studying polygamous communities in British Columbia.
Harper said the Liberals’ proposed same-sex bill may eventually lead to the legalization of polygamy if polygamous groups challenge the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman.
Prime Minister Paul Martin has rejected this notion and said there are no plans to make polygamy legal.
Palmer believes polygamy is likely to continue in Bountiful — and elsewhere — unless federal laws are reviewed.
“Until (the law) has been tried… polygamy basically exists in a vacuum. It isn’t legal, but it isn’t illegal either.
“And until they do something about that, people that are living polygamy in whatever part of society can do whatever they want, really.”
In October 2004, the women of Bountiful dismissed claims that they had been brainwashed and needed to be rescued from their husbands.
Their statement came after eight women in British Columbia launched a complaint with the human rights tribunal on behalf of the Bountiful women.
With files from Canadian Press