BOUNTIFUL, B.C. – A group of high school students is sitting on top of the desks, huddled in a circle furiously debating a topic dear to their hearts.
But that’s not what’s on the mind of these Grade 10 students at Mormon Hills School. They’re busy planning to overthrow the school’s dress code.
Welcome to Bountiful. Expect the unexpected.
Outside scrutiny of what was already one of Canada’s most controversial communities has intensified since authorities in Texas raided a sister sect of polygamists in that state.
A Texas court has been told that some of the more than 400 children taken into state custody are Canadians, although Canadian authorities have not confirmed that.
Back in Bountiful, with the eyes of the country once again upon them, children wave as they play in an open field. Mere metres away, mothers hide in bushes with their babies in strollers.
The two sides of Bountiful are no more apparent than at the community’s two schools: Mormon Hills and Bountiful School.
Less than half-a-kilometre apart, their divisions are symbolic of a religious feud that split the community six years ago.
At the root of the divide is a dispute over economics between community leader Winston Blackmore, who lives in Bountiful with his numerous wives and reportedly dozens of children, and followers of jailed American Mormon fundamentalist Warren Jeffs, who reportedly has 70 wives.
Children who used to play together – some are related – no longer speak. Neighbours don’t even look at each other.
Bountiful, with its fertile, rolling farmlands rimmed by jagged mountain peaks, is located near the southeastern B.C. town of Creston. It’s about a kilometre away from the border of Idaho.
There have long been accusations that young women, including some from Bountiful, are dispersed throughout several polygamist communities in the United States in arranged marriages.
Blackmore calls the Texans relatives and family, but says doesn’t know if any are from Bountiful. Jeffs supporters in Bountiful also say they don’t know if any Bountiful people are in Texas.
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal says the government has been in contact with U.S. officials over Bountiful. He also says the B.C. government is considering its next legal move when it comes to dealing with the community.
Oppal says he needs someone to come forward with evidence of sexual abuse before charges can be laid. Their other option is a legal case against polygamy based on bigamy laws.
Jeff Banman, the principal of Mormon Hills, says the 135 students in grades 1-10 at the school all likely come from polygamist families.
Banman, who is not a polygamist or a Mormon, said he doesn’t consider it his business to delve into the backgrounds of his students. His job is to ensure they are taught the B.C. school curriculum, he said.
Students say they know people in Texas, but can’t say if they are from Bountiful.
“Billy’s down there,” says one student.
“Frank’s there,” says another.
“One of our cousins was. Some of them lived here before.”
Banman diplomatically suggests that there are obvious family ties with Texas.
“They’re just as concerned about the children that were taken. I think even more so, that some of them are family,” he said.
“Not that I know they were living here.”
Mormon Hills and Bountiful schools are both independent, but funded by B.C. taxpayers.
Mormon Hills is about a year old, built by Blackmore after the Jeffs feud saw him lose the old school on the hill, which continues as Bountiful School with 180 students.
Banman said Mormon Hills school was built from scratch, but its large playing field, outdoor pond and farm setting give the students a back-to-nature experience.
The classes have a distinct nature theme instead of the expected Bibles and posters of Mormon prophets. Blackmore, the school’s superintendent, teaches a 45-minute religion class to students every Tuesday.
Animals are the focus: Mountain goats, hawks, raccoons and a complete black bear skin with the head attached cover the classroom. A huge stuffed wild turkey stands next to the teacher’s desk.
The students were getting ready for Earth Day recently.
Banman, 30, said his first year as school principal and a teacher has been an enriching experience, but one that’s come with a huge learning curve.
He said he hasn’t had any pressures from the residents of Bountiful about religion though he knows every student has been exposed to the polygamist lifestyle.
“They are here to learn what the government wants them to learn,” he said. “They have different backgrounds, different experiences to offer, but it doesn’t affect what they are learning and how they learn it.”
Banman said he quickly discovered his students are not much different than students at public schools. He expected a regimented group of kids, but found individuals.
“When I accepted the job to come out here, I had these prejudgements,” he said. “Of course, what I’ve seen in the media and read in the newspapers, I figured these kids are going to be so well behaved and just sitting in their desks waiting for the next instruction, but it wasn’t exactly like that. If they don’t agree with something, they’ll let you know.”
Like the dress code.
At Mormon Hills, girls must wear skirts and boys, long-sleeved shirts but the girls have found a way around the skirts rule, wearing jeans under their skirts. And with snow on the ground, it isn’t exactly shirt-sleeve weather for the boys.
“Just normal kids,” Banman said. “They bring their I-pods to school. They watch movies on the weekend. Typical, typical kids.”
At the Bountiful School, it’s difficult to tell what’s typical. Classroom window blinds are shut, but students can be heard laughing as a stranger approaches.
Inside this school are the expected religious messages on the walls and posters of prophets.
“To succeed here, you must say your prayers everyday,” says one message.
The school code’s No. 1 rule is: “Obey sweetly and promptly.”
Principal Merrill Palmer said he doesn’t usually welcome the public into the school where there appears to be a strict fundamentalist dress code in effect – girls in long, plain dresses and boys in pants and long-sleeved shirts.
But he said the events unfolding in Texas have forced him to speak out on behalf of his community.
“I just do not know the people down there, the children down there,” Palmer said.
“The people who are living in Texas, it’s very secretive, very quiet. They are living their way of life for privacy. I absolutely do not know who’s there. That’s the honest truth.”