The woman, who cannot be identified due to a court order, was the first person practicing polygamy in Canada to testify at the polygamy trial being heard in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.
She testified from a separate courtroom, where only she, her lawyer, the judge and several court officials were present.
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The main Vancouver courtroom where the trial has been held was packed with spectators who watched the proceedings on a video feed.
The mother of nine told B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman that many people in mainstream society treat polygamists with bias and prejudice.
“That affects my everyday life. We’ve had to pay so much money to try and stay out of jail. It’s hard to come up with the money that we need.”
The woman, who is only identified in her court affidavit as “Witness #2,” said she was raised to believe in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), commonly known as fundamentalist Mormons.
Under questioning from FLDS lawyer Robert Wickett, she said that she has a sister wife, a woman who is also her biological sister.
She said she has good relations with the sister and added: “Conflicts arise, yes, but I feel we can deal with it in a reasonable manner.”
Though she married at 16, she said the current policy of the FLDS is to disallow marriages under the age of 18.
Notwithstanding that policy, her own daughter married at the age of 15, against her strong advice, she said.
Plural wife describes life in Bountiful
Bountiful, a commune of about 1,000 people in southeastern B.C., follows a form of fundamentalist Mormonism long since rejected by the mainstream church. The isolated community has come under heavy scrutiny at the hearings, which were prompted by the failed prosecution of Bountiful’s two leaders on polygamy charges.
The court has already heard from former residents of Bountiful and similar polygamous communities who have told the court about forced marriages, physical and emotional abuse, and a culture that demands strict obedience from women and children.
In a calm voice, hesitating occasionally to collect her thoughts through heavy sighs, the woman offered a contradictory picture of life in the community, where she said girls can refuse marriages and are no longer married before the age of 18.
The policy restricting underage marriage was brought into effect nearly three years ago by the community’s parent church in the U.S., the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. Since then, the woman said she’s not aware of anyone who’s been married.
The woman grew up in a family that included her father’s five wives and about 30 children.
She said children are taught the importance of obedience, but women aren’t forced to obey their husbands and they are free to divorce.
The woman rejected claims that girls are forbidden to interact with or be alone with boys, although she acknowledged she was taught to see boys as “snakes” that are best avoided and not touched.
But she also acknowledged teenage girls have been sent to or from polygamous communities in the United States to be married.
The woman testified for nearly five hours on Tuesday, and most of that time was spent answering questions under cross-examination by lawyers for the provincial and federal governments.
She was questioned about her religion, with a B.C. government lawyer suggesting women are required by their religion to enter into polygamous marriages.
“My beliefs are that living plural marriage isn’t for everyone,” the witness said.
“But it is for everyone who wants to get to the highest celestial kingdom (of heaven), isn’t it?” asked lawyer Leah Greathead.
“Maybe everyone doesn’t want to,” the woman replied.
The constitutional hearings were prompted by the failed prosecution of Bountiful leaders Winston Blackmore and James Oler, who were each charged in 2009 with practising polygamy. A judge later threw out the charges on technical legal grounds.
All of the anonymous witnesses are from Oler’s side, which the court has heard is more strict than Blackmore’s.
Blackmore is boycotting the hearings because he was denied government funding. Oler initially offered to testify, but later decided against appearing.