B.C. women’s group calls on government to stop funding polygamist school

‘It’s shocking, mind-blowingly shocking’
Go to the end of the story for the Attorney General’s response
Canadian Press, July 3, 2003

VANCOUVER (CP) — A women’s centre is outraged that the provincial Liberal government provided $632,000 in funding last year to a school at a polygamous commune in southeastern British Columbia.

Spokesperson Debra Critchley said Wednesday that the Vernon and District Women’s Centre Society uncovered the funding while reading the government’s public accounts for 2001-2002.

“It’s shocking, mind-blowingly shocking,” Critchley said of taxpayers footing the bill for a school at the Bountiful polygamous commune in Lister, B.C., near Creston.

Critchley said she’s also concerned about the welfare of teenage girls who are being married off to older men and then bearing several children each.

Three women who sought refuge at the women’s centre in recent years after escaping from the commune have said very few children are even being educated there, Critchley said.

“The bottom line is, this is illegal. The entire Bountiful school is illegal and they’re funding the school,” she said of the government.

Critchley recently received a response from Premier Gordon Campbell after she wrote to him about the matter June 23.

“I can assure you that the provincial government is aware of the concerns that exist regarding this issue,” Campbell wrote in the June 26 letter.

Campbell said he would notify Attorney General Geoff Plant, whose office would respond.

Critchley said she hasn’t yet heard anything from Plant.

The attorney general did not return calls to his office Wednesday.

“We want them to pull the funding out of Bountiful and we want them to pursue prosecuting the leadership,” Critchley said.

Kate Thompson, a spokesperson for the B.C. Education Ministry, said the government is legally obligated to fund Bountiful, the same as with other independent schools that pass an assessment.

“If it qualifies and they’re eligible under the B.C. legislation, it’s no different from any other independent school in that regard,” Thompson said.

“There’s the contrast between what our legal obligation is under the Independent Schools Act and what people’s concerns are over the moral questions and the legal questions involved in polygamy, which is quite separate from what the ministry is mandated for.”

Critchley called that a “cop-out.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be OK with taxpayers that they’re funding polygamy.”

Up until a few years ago, the provincial government was paying about $400,000 annually for the Bountiful school.

The Lister commune was formed in 1947 by three men who were excommunicated by the Creston Mormon church for refusing to give up the belief that men should marry several women. Mainstream Mormons renounced polygamy about 110 years ago.

Bountiful, which has about 1,000 members, has had a recent change of leadership and now a new patriarch, Jim Oler.

Three years ago, former leader Winston Blackmore, then 44, was estimated to have 30 young wives and 80 children.

Earlier this year, Blackmore, the bishop of the polygamist religious group and superintendent of schools, lost control of the community’s schools and over $1 million in assets to rivals aligned with the U.S.-based sect.

Blackmore was involved in a succession battle with Warren Jeffs, of Colorado City, Ariz., after the death last fall of Rulon Jeffs, the breakaway Mormon sect’s top official.

In April, a B.C. Supreme Court judge approved an order that would allow Jeffs’s followers to control Bountiful’s elementary and secondary school.

B.C. announced in 1992 that it would not prosecute two polygamists from Bountiful and declared the Criminal Code section outlawing polygamy unconstitutional.

In 1993, Immigration Canada confirmed it was aware of teenage American girls being brought into the commune from Arizona and Utah. But no action was taken because of the conflict of legal opinion between the federal government and Victoria.

Attorney General reiterates obligation to fund school

VICTORIA, July 3 – Attorney General Geoff Plant says if people have allegations of criminal activity at a commune in southeast B.C. they should go to the police.

A women’s centre in Vernon has alleged wrongdoing at the Bountiful commune near Creston, where men keep several wives.

Plant says there are lots of stories about what may or may not be happening at the polygamous commune.

But he says it’s difficult for the police to investigate such claims without evidence.

Plant also says the government has received legal advice that taking action against the commune might not survive a constitutional challenge, partly on the basis of freedom of religion.

The commune was formed in 1947 by three men who were excommunicated by the Creston Mormon church for refusing to give up the belief that men should marry several women.

The Vernon womens’ centre has also called on the government to stop funding an independent school at Bountiful, but the government says its legally obligated to help fund the school.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday July 5, 2003.
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