Why pay when you can get stuff free? The Internet has not only fuelled the desire to get something for nothing but has allowed people to believe that only the stupid pay for music, movies, video games – or news.

There’s a certain reckless, albeit anonymous, bravado in this stick-it-to-the-man-and-the-big-corporations attitude. But it’s a chimera that defies the most basic principles of economics. While everybody seems to accept that it takes millions of dollars to make movies, people either don’t realize or don’t care that it also costs millions of dollars to produce daily newspapers, which even in these troubled times remain the primary source of investigative reporting.

Perhaps people don’t care because, traditionally, advertising produced so much revenue that the owners were able to sell their product at far below cost. Even in markets where the subscriber base is stable, a dollar a copy for a metro paper doesn’t come close to covering production costs. But for almost everyone under 35, paying anything is too much. And why would they pay? In newspapers’ rush to embrace the Internet, publishers have been giving away more and better information free online than they provide to their loyal paying subscribers. Check almost any North American newspaper on any given day and there will be at least one story that you would really like to read, but can’t unless you go to the website.

Lost in the enthusiasm over all that information available for nothing on the Web is the fact that it costs both time and money to hit gold. There are almost equal amounts of junk and jewels on the Web, and that’s not counting the porn and the scams. Sifting through information is what journalists do. What’s more, newspapers are a major source of the information for twitterers, bloggers and so-called citizen journalists, as well as the mainstay of Google News. There’s a reason for that. Newspapers are trusted to do good journalism on a wide range of subjects.

Social cohesion may survive without the shared experience of blockbuster movies or everyone knowing the latest about Britney Spears. But can our democracy survive without news – without shared knowledge of what is happening in the local community, the province, the country or the world? What happens if there is nobody at City Hall or the courthouse to report on what happens? What if there are no journalists filing freedom of information requests, asking difficult questions or ferreting out the stories that corporate and political spin-doctors try to hide? How are you going to know about a polluting industry in your community, a neighbour who has discovered an amazing cure, how your MP voted or what the Canadian troops are doing in Afghanistan? How will you decide how to vote? Will you even care?

The Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism recently surveyed 145 citizen and 218 newspaper sites (labelled “legacy news” as if newspapers were already dead). On citizen sites, it found, “the range of topics is narrower and the sourcing somewhat thinner than on legacy news sites, and the content is generally not updated even on a daily basis.”

“That isn’t surprising,” wrote columnist Stephen Hume, my colleague at the Vancouver Sun. “Lack of revenue seriously limits news-gathering resources. Enthusiasm only carries one so far.”

The Pew study also found that newspaper websites carried 89 per cent news, compared to only 56 per cent on citizen sites and 27 per cent in blogs. Despite the perception that new media are bolder when it comes to covering controversial subjects, the Pew study found that the Iraq war, for example, has almost disappeared from citizen sites, but not from newspaper sites. What’s missing from the citizen sites and blogs is investigative reporting. Even these days with anorexic staffing levels, newspapers still break most of the stories that provide the fodder for successful online publications like the Huffington Post.

Even among online journalists, a majority (54 per cent) of the 300 interviewed by the Pew Foundation said they believe journalism is headed in the wrong direction. According to the study, released in March, the majority also believe that the Web is changing the fundamental values of journalism for the worse. In particular, online journalists worry about declining accuracy, due in part to the emphasis on speed and being first with the news.

Increased Web competition is only a part of the story of the big media corporations’ struggle to survive. Like most entrepreneurs this past decade, newspaper owners longed to be monopolists and, urged on by their pals on Wall Street and Bay Street, plunged their companies so deeply into debt that it will take a miracle for some of them to survive intact – even if they succeed in retooling to compete on the Web.

Extraordinary cost-cutting measures have been imposed. There is scarcely a newspaper in North America that hasn’t cut staff substantially while imposing increased productivity demands. It’s a rare journalist these days who isn’t asked to blog, twitter, do podcasts and even shoot video in addition to their “regular” work. Coverage – even of election campaigns – has been curtailed. Out-of-town trips are increasingly rare. At some papers, staff have been told to limit the amount of photocopying they do, and then it must be on both sides of the paper. Buses have replaced taxis as the way to get to in-town assignments. Skype and 1-800 numbers are recommended for reporters placing long-distance phone calls.

In the United States, 33 newspapers or more are in bankruptcy protection. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News have folded. As I write this, the debt of the company I work for, CanWest Global Communications Corp. (owner of Canada’s largest chain of newspapers and the Global Television Network as well as newspapers and television stations in Australia), is close to $4 billion. CanWest Global has suffered a $1.44 billion net loss in the first quarter of 2009, including a $1.2 billion writedown of “goodwill, intangible assets, property and equipment” in its publishing operations. That followed a $1 billion writedown of TV holdings in late 2008. In late April, it was given yet another two-week extension by its lenders and noteholders to try to avoid having to file for bankruptcy protection.

Nor has anyone yet figured out how to make money from websites – a crucial step since advertising revenue in traditional news media dropped 23 per cent in the United States in the last two years, and that’s before the recession was full blown. Canadian numbers mirror that.

Delivering the keynote speech at the Newspaper Association of America’s recent annual conference, Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, recommended that newspapers move beyond being “trust content providers” to being “content aggregators and marketers.” But he didn’t provide any real specifics, nor did he offer to share with publishers the $22 billion Google News earns annually from advertising on its site that aggregates news from newspaper and other mainly mainstream media sites. Among the new financial models suggested by Canadian media owners is revenue-sharing: a fee built into Internet service providers’ subscription rates, similar to the fee collected by cable companies and passed on to television stations and networks.

Even online publications are struggling to make ends meet. The cost of covering British Columbia’s May provincial election was out of reach for the online Tyee (www.thetyee.ca), so its editor, David Beers, made an unusual plea for money while asking readers what issues they wanted covered. In his April 10 article, Beers said he and the staff “are paying close attention to the specifics donors mention when they make their contributions. For example in the environment category many have instructed us to focus on run-of-river energy projects and transportation.” Further on, Beers wrote, “See an issue you’d like to bump up a little higher? Want to put something different on the Tyee’s agenda – and in the minds of B.C. voters?” The gambit raised close to $20,000, but it also raised the ethical question of whether special-interest groups could buy favourable coverage.

Another Pew Foundation study, released in February, found rather surprisingly that the number of journalists in the Washington, D.C., press gallery hasn’t declined along with the number of newspapers. But newspaper journalists have been replaced by niche reporters writing for specialized elite audiences, with narrowly targeted financial, lobbying and political interests, who are willing to pay high subscription fees. Among the special-interest buyers are defence contractors, oil companies and mobile phone alliances. As the study says, “For those who participate in the American democracy, the ‘balance of information’ has been tilted away from voters along Main Streets … to issue-based groups that jostle for influence daily in the corridors of power.”

I confess to more than a passing interest in the health and survival of newspapers. I can’t help getting angry when I read media analysts who blithely dismiss economic concerns as something that someone else should think creatively about and then go on to say that media transformation is not endangering citizenship or democracy.

There is a reason that modern, liberal democracies provide special recognition and status for the fourth estate. There is a reason why one of the institutions that needs to be built in new democracies is a free – as in unfettered – press. The reason is that democracies thrive only if they have well-informed, educated and engaged citizens. For centuries, newspapers and their journalists have been committed to doing that. Somehow, some way, they need to be given the chance – whether in hard copy or electronically – to do it in the future as well.

This article inaugurates a new social affairs column by Daphne Bramham, columnist for the Vancouver Sun and author of The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect.

Polygamy has been illegal in Canada since 1890. It was criminalized soon after Charles O. Card, a fugitive escaping prosecution in Utah for having more than one wife, settled in Alberta.

Card and several senior members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints went to Ottawa to ask Sir John A. Macdonald to allow them to practise polygamy. The Prime Minister said no. Parliament approved the anti-polygamy law the same year that Utah outlawed plural marriage in both its constitution and law and the Mormon Church issued its manifesto suspending the earthly practice of polygamy and warning members that they would be excommunicated if they entered into celestial or plural marriages.

In the intervening years, polygamy has rarely been prosecuted in either Canada or the United States. But since the 1990s, a breakaway sect of polygamous Mormons in British Columbia has acted with impunity. The reason? The B.C. government received a couple of legal opinions in the late 1980s saying that the anti-polygamy law is contrary to the guarantee of religious freedom in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Opinions in hand, NDP Attorney-General Colin Gabelmann, who had no legal training, rejected the RCMP’s recommendation to prosecute two leaders of the fundamentalist Mormon community in Bountiful.

Since 1990, Bountiful has tripled in size to 1,200 or more people. There are nearly 500 children in the two government-funded independent schools, which only go up to Grade 10. Winston Blackmore, the community’s bishop, has framed a copy of the Charter and hung it in his office. By his own admission, he has also consummated “celestial marriages” with “several very young girls.” In league with American fundamentalist Mormons, Blackmore has participated in the forced marriages of dozens of underaged girls. He is also complicit in the trafficking of young girls and women between Canada and the United States into what one author called “God’s brothel.” Now 51, Blackmore has had 26 wives and, by last count, has 116 children.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly said that polygamy is “incompatible with equality of treatment with regard to the right to marry.” To make the skewed arithmetic of polygamy work, women and children must be chattels. As a result, men – usually in God’s name – trample the freedoms of everyone who has the misfortune to fall under their power.

Fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful (as well as those in the Texas compound raided in April by child protection authorities) are taught that boys are to treat girls as snakes. They’re disciplined if they do something as innocent as flirt with girls their own age, watch videos or listen to rock music. Some are excommunicated and told to leave the community at ages as young as 12 and 13. Their mothers are told to tear up or burn photos of them. But the boys are useful for something. It is on the backs of their labour that the leaders support their multiple wives and dozens of children. The patriarchs send the boys to work at companies they control, either as unpaid labourers or for little more than slave wages.

Men who run afoul of Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are excommunicated. For their part, women and girls are told that their highest and best use is to produce children. Most expect to have eight, ten or more. Birth control is not allowed. They are taught to be subservient to the prophet, their fathers, their husbands and sometimes even their sons. “Keep sweet” and “perfect obedience leads to perfect faith” are two mantras they are encouraged to repeat.

It is a rare polygamous family where all of the wives and mothers are treated equally. As a result, plural wives must constantly compete for affection, attention and money with other women and the children. If a woman’s children are sickly or if she collapses under the strain of too many pregnancies, too many children or too many sister-wives, it is her fault. She is told she is rebellious and out of harmony with God, the prophet and her husband.

Canada’s polygamous community flourishes because B.C. politicians have been led to believe the Charter will stymie them. They look south to the United States where an estimated 38,000 fundamentalist Mormons practise polygamy with near-impunity as well. But this is Canada where – unlike the United States – the constitution guarantees equality as well as freedom of religion.

The Supreme Court of Canada has been very clear that freedom of religion is not an unfettered right. In a landmark decision in 1985, Mr. Justice Brian Dickson wrote, “Freedom can primarily be characterized by the absence of coercion or constraint. If a person is compelled by the state or the will of another to a course of action or inaction, which he would not otherwise have chosen, he is not acting of his own volition and he cannot be said to be truly free. One of the major purposes of the Charter is to protect, within reason, from compulsion or restraint.”

Dickson defined coercion not only as blatant forms such as direct commands: “Coercion includes indirect forms of control which determine or limit alternative courses of conduct available to others … Freedom means that subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, no one is to be forced to act in a way contrary to his own beliefs or conscience.”

All of which suggests that, even in 1990, the B.C. government had a fighting chance of convincing the courts that polygamy is not protected by the Charter’s provisions for religious freedom. Yet even though the federal Justice Minister of the day – Kim Campbell, another British Columbian – believed that the law was constitutional and offered to share the cost of taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court, the B.C. government dropped it like a hot potato. There was no tsunami of public opinion against the polygamists.

But the courts have continued to clarify the limits to religious practice (as opposed to belief). In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada legalized so-called swingers’ clubs on the basis of the right of consenting adults to do what they wanted if there is no harm to others. In a dissenting opinion, two justices, Michel Bastarache and Louis LeBel, had this to say about harm:

According to contemporary Canadian social morality, acts such as child pornography, incest, polygamy and bestiality are unacceptable regardless of whether or not they cause social harm. The community considers these acts to be harmful in themselves. Parliament enforces this social morality by enacting statutory norms in legislation such as the Criminal Code.

In short, they said that in most cases evidence must be heard to establish harm. But some acts are unacceptable by their very nature because they lead to “societal dysfunction or to the creation of a predisposition to anti-social conduct.” Polygamy, they said, is one of those.

The federal government, supported by the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal, has aggressively upheld the anti-polygamy law by denying Muslim polygamists’ immigration applications. It has also instituted a policy of granting refugee status to foreign women fleeing polygamy and forced marriages.

What it has failed to do up until recently is apply the same standards to the fair-skinned fundamentalist Mormons. Until recently, fundamentalist Mormon plural wives who entered the country illegally have been allowed to stay on “humanitarian and compassionate grounds,” which they applied for only after they had six, seven, eight or more children.

Though it has accepted as refugees women fleeing forced and polygamous marriages in Africa, the Canadian government has never extended a helping hand to either Canadian- or American-born fundamentalist Mormons escaping the same treatment. There is no money to help them in relocating. No money for legal aid to secure the custody of their children. No money to upgrade their woefully poor education. There is no money for counselling, for them or their children, to overcome the years of emotional and mental abuse or brainwashing. No safe houses. No transition houses capable of handling a woman with eight or more children.

In British Columbia, the government has had no qualms about testing the religious freedoms of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the spring of 2005, the Ministry of Children and Family Development got a court order forcing a 14-year-old Jehovah’s Witness to have a blood transfusion deemed necessary to treat her life-threatening cancer. It did it again in 2007 to force transfusions on sextuplets born to Jehovah’s Witnesses. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mary Boyd ruled that people can’t be denied their right to hold their beliefs, but religious beliefs cannot override a person’s Charter-guaranteed right to life and security of person: “The preservation of the life of a child … is foremost. All children are entitled to be protected from abuse and harm.” Except, it seems, if those children live in Bountiful.

The federal government has commissioned a series of studies on polygamy over the last couple of years. All but one has concluded that polygamy should remain a criminal offence and be prosecuted. In its Separate and Unequal: The Women and Children of Polygamy, the Alberta Civil Liberties Association described Bountiful as

an authoritarian, theocratic culture where many individual rights are so limited that they have little or no meaning when measured against the bundle of rights and liberties that other Canadians enjoy … Polygamy as practised in Bountiful is harmful to children, women and society because it perpetuates a value system premised on the idea that women have no place in a community as fully equal citizens.

The civil libertarians noted that under Canadian and international law, there is a difference between a guarantee of religious belief and a guarantee of religious practice. And the courts have determined that religious practices can and should be outlawed if they cause harm to others.

In late 2006, Canada’s justice department released a study written by Rebecca Cook, faculty chair in international human rights and co-director of the University of Toronto’s international reproductive and sexual health law program. She concluded that polygamy offends the dignity of all women and denies their protection and the protection of their children. It undermines women’s and children’s rights to be safe and secure as well as their ability to exercise their full rights and privileges as citizens of this country.

She also warned that the failure to prosecute polygamy not only was contrary to the constitution and Charter but also contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – written by a Canadian and ratified by Canada in 1948. That’s not all. Failing to prosecute, she concluded, contravenes other international conventions that Canada has ratified, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To nonlawyers like me, the logic seems simple. Religious freedom ends with harm or coercion. Polygamy is harmful to women and children. Therefore, religion ought not to provide shield or shelter for polygamists, and the men who perpetrate it ought to be prosecuted. It seems blindingly obvious that Canadians and our governments have failed the children of Bountiful. We have allowed them to be degraded, humiliated, abused, exploited and violated.

All the while we’ve congratulated ourselves on being among the world’s most compassionate and caring people. We care so much about human rights that we put our sons and daughters in harm’s way in countries like Afghanistan. Yet if we refuse to uphold the human rights of our own citizens and fail to bring our homegrown zealots and petty tyrants to heel, we have no moral authority to tell others what to do.

When does a religion stop being a religion and start being abuse?

In 1990, with no public discussion and no fanfare, the British Columbia government effectively legalized polygamy.

It’s not as if there was a groundswell of support for polygamy by individuals and the courts, as there has been for same-sex marriage. Quite the contrary.

The de facto legalization came when officials in the B.C. crown prosecutor’s office rejected an RCMP recommendation that charges be laid against some members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) living in Lister in the southeastern corner of the province – a place the polygamists call Bountiful. The RCMP investigated complaints of polygamy, in particular the forced marriages of girls as young as 13 to leaders of the sect.

Polygamy in Canada is a criminal offence punishable by a maximum of five years in jail. It is illegal for anyone to practise, enter into or consent to practise “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage.” The law goes even further and says that anyone who “celebrates, assists or is party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship” defined by the Criminal Code as polygamy is also guilty of an indictable offence.

The investigators found enough evidence in 1990 that they recommended charges be laid. However, officials in the crown prosecutor’s office – with the support of their boss, at the time NDP Attorney General Colin Gabelman – would not go along with the recommendation because the government had several legal opinions that said the polygamy law would not withstand a constitutional challenge. Those opinions, which the government has refused to make public, suggest that the Charter of Rights’ protection for religious freedom would trump Section 153 of the Criminal Code, the section that prohibits polygamy.

(The government has also repeatedly refused over the years to release any details of what other charges – if any – were recommended by the RCMP. However, it was reported at the time that people had come forward with allegations of sexual abuse and sex involving minors.)

The attorney general and his staff assumed – no doubt correctly – that if charged the polygamists would use the Charter in their defence. Such a case would be lengthy, complex and costly since it would almost certainly end up in the Supreme Court of Canada. Gabelman, who is not a lawyer, wrote to Justice Minister Kim Campbell – another British Columbian – asking that the federal government rewrite the polygamy law so that it would be bulletproof. Campbell and her officials disagreed with B.C.’s legal opinions and wrote back that the polygamy law is just fine, thank you very much. She advised Gabelman to take a case to court and said the federal government would help pay the costs.

And so it has been with every successive attorney general up to and including the current occupant of the office, Geoff Plant, and every federal justice minister up to and including Irwin Cotler.

Living the principle

In the mid-1940s, a small group of excommunicated Mormons from Utah and Alberta bought land in Lister, B.C. to “live the principle” as set out by Joseph Smith. That principle is celestial or plural marriages. FLDS followers believe that only men with three or more wives will be allowed into the celestial kingdom of God. And the only women in the celestial kingdom will be those dutiful, obedient plural wives who are invited there by their husbands to serve them for all eternity.

Like other fundamentalist Mormons in Utah and Arizona, they knew that polygamy is illegal and they feared prosecution. That’s why the Canadian group chose the land in Lister that bumps up against the Skimmerhorn Mountains and the Canada-U.S. border. They wanted to build a closed community where they could practise polygamy away from prying eyes.

Since the B.C. government declined to lay charges in the 1990s, the community has not only more than doubled in size but has also become much more open about their polygamy. Given the current social climate in Canada, it may be easy to slough off polygamy as something harmless practised by a few consenting adults. Certainly that is the view of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which has consistently counselled B.C. attorneys general not to prosecute polygamy.

Civil libertarians and many Canadians would agree that polygamy is harmless if it involves three or more consenting adults. But polygamy in a religious context, practised in a closed community with little contact to the mainstream society, sets a framework for exploitation, inequality and abuse. It codifies, ritualizes and normalizes what in mainstream society is criminalized. A 1993 report (Life in Bountiful: A Report on the Lifestyle of a Polygamous Community) commissioned by the B.C. women’s equality ministry concluded, “The group’s religious beliefs are so encompassing they have shaped a distinct culture. It is a culture that limits individual rights to the point of virtually eliminating them.”

In the past couple of years, there have been new allegations about the sexual exploitation of girls in Bountiful and trafficking of girls and women between Canada and fundamentalist Mormons in the United States, and complaints that the government-supported independent schools operating in the closed community are teaching racism and sexual discrimination. In the spring of 2004, a group of women filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. The tribunal agreed to hear it, but because of the backlog of cases the complaint won’t be heard until 2006. And a few months after the human rights complaint was filed, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association urged the government and police to investigate all of the complaints.

Other groups – including school trustees, teachers and local residents – began calling for investigations, and in early summer 2004 the provincial government bowed to the pressure. Attorney General Plant launched an intergovernmental investigation. He asked the crown prosecutor’s office to work with the RCMP to review the evidence from 1990 and the charges that had been recommended, and determine what led to the decision not to proceed. He asked the crown prosecutor’s office also to look at changes in the law to determine whether any new charges – such as trafficking – might be applicable. And he asked the RCMP to investigate all new allegations.

Yet Plant has continued to express reservations about the polygamy law and the likelihood of successful convictions. Like the Civil Liberties Association, which says “the question of polygamy is an unhelpful diversion from the other allegations at hand,” Plant has focused on the allegations of abuse, exploitation and sexual discrimination.

Life in Bountiful

What is actually happening at Bountiful?

Girls in Bountiful are taught from birth that their lot in life is to “Keep Sweet” and obey men. They are taught that their highest and best use is to be wives and mothers, bearing a child every year for as many years as they are able. They are rarely given the opportunity to finish high school. Those who do are usually assigned to go back to school after they’ve had several children so that they can become teachers in the FLDS schools or midwives (thereby enabling FLDS mothers to avoid the local hospital). Virtually all girls are married and have children by the age of 18.

M~ SUN0419N Bountiful 20.jpg

Jane Blackmore, a former Bountiful midwife, has publicly said that the youngest mother she helped through childbirth was 14 years old. Blackmore was also the first and legal wife of Winston Blackmore, who is one of the richest and most powerful men in the FLDS. Winston Blackmore has 24 or more wives and close to 100 children, and is superintendent of one of the community’s two schools. Jane Blackmore divorced her husband in August 2004 after gaining custody of their youngest child.

One of Winston Blackmore’s wives, Zelpha Chatwin, admitted at a conference in Winnipeg in February 2005 that at least one of Blackmore’s “brides” was 15 years old when assigned to him. At the conference, Chatwin claimed that Blackmore didn’t want to take the child bride but was forced to – by whom she didn’t say. The conference was videotaped and a copy of the tape has been sent to the RCMP because, polygamy aside, it is illegal for anyone in a position of trust or authority to have sex with children 18 and under. The offence is sexual exploitation and it carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

Jane Blackmore has said that one of the main reasons she left Bountiful is that she wanted her youngest daughter, Brittany, to fulfil her dream of being a scientist rather than being forced to leave school at age 15 and enter into an assigned marriage. Blackmore herself finished high school only after she had had several children, and then she was only allowed to study midwifery. Her husband, who was the bishop of Bountiful at the time, thought it would be good for the community.

One of the problems for the FLDS is inbreeding. In 1993, the authors of Life in Bountiful concluded that “genetic distance seems to be maintained,” but “children of sister-wives but different fathers are married to each other … step-children of men and women may be married to their step-parent.” Jane Blackmore also said in an interview in 2004 that she has seen no evidence of birth defects.

Debbie Palmer, Bountiful’s most outspoken critic and Jane Blackmore’s full sister, uses her own genealogy as an example of the tortuously complex relationships in the opening of her book Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy. Palmer’s father had six wives and a total of 48 children. Palmer was assigned to three different men, the first at age 15, and was never legally married. She has eight children and has given the following description of the complexity of her family links:

My oldest daughter is my aunt and I am her grandmother. When I was assigned to marry my first husband, I became my own step-grandmother since my father was already married to two daughters of my new husband … After my mother’s father was assigned to marry one of my second husband’s daughters as a second wife, I became my own great-grandmother.

Because of the concern over inbreeding, there has been a longstanding cross-border exchange of child “brides,” with girls as young as 15 being moved illegally in both directions between Bountiful and the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The towns straddle the state border.

When the RCMP did its last full investigation of Bountiful in 1990, Canada didn’t have laws against trafficking in humans or human smuggling. But that changed when the immigration law was rewritten in 2002 and those offences were added. The difference between smuggling and trafficking is one of degree. Smuggling refers to people who facilitate illegal entry into Canada. Trafficking is much more serious and involves an element of exploitation where a trafficker retains control over the illegal migrant through force, fraud or coercion. The maximum penalty for trafficking is $1 million or life in prison.

Just how the law is applied remains to seen. Although Canada is touted as having some of the toughest legislation in the world for deterring trafficking, the first charge under the legislation (against a Vancouver massage parlour owner) was not laid until April 2005. That lack of enforcement was part of the reason Canada was cited by the United States in 2003 as being among the worst countries in the world when it comes to trafficking.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has vowed to make prosecution of human trafficking a priority. Yet despite that and all of the talk of tightened security at Canada-U.S. borders since 9/11, the movement of young FLDS women has continued undisturbed. The RCMP has a list of at least seven girls under the age of 18 who were taken illegally across the border in 2004 to become brides in assigned marriages. Two of the American girls who came to Bountiful were 15 years of age. The youngest Canadian girl sent to the U.S. in the past year was 16. It’s worth noting that the legal marriage age in B.C. is 16 – and that requires parental consent. Anyone under 16 wishing to be legally married requires the permission of a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

Craig Chatwin, who has left the FLDS, told me that nearly a dozen of his 30-plus siblings were sent to Bountiful over the years. Nearly 14 years ago, two of his sisters – Zelpha, 17, and Marsha, 20 – both came illegally to Canada and married Winston Blackmore on the same day. Both recently applied to become landed immigrants. They are appealing for citizenship on humanitarian and compassionate grounds because they now have five children each.

Canadian citizenship means the wives – and by extension their husbands – gain access to free health care, daycare subsidies, welfare, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, the Canada Child Tax Benefit and the provincial top-up (the B.C. Family Bonus). These last two transfers are worth close to $1,800 a month for a single mother with five children, and most of the women qualify as single mothers because most of the plural wives are not legally married.

The Lost Boys

Women and girls are the most obvious victims, but not the only ones. Because we come into the world in near-equal numbers of men and women, polygamy (or, more precisely, polygyny) as practised by the FLDS means that some men will never get wives. It means that two out of every three men are potentially surplus. In practice, it means that young men are constantly at risk. They pose a danger to the aspirations of older men who have yet to be assigned the three wives necessary for entering the highest realm of heaven. They also pose a risk to the plans of church leaders who use the assignment of wives as a stick to keep followers in line. Any sort of misbehaviour – especially showing an interest in girls their own age – can result in young males’ expulsion from the church and the community.

No one in Canada knows how many boys have been forced out of Bountiful. However, in Utah, where the FLDS community is 10,000 strong, there are an estimated 800 so-called Lost Boys – 400 have been kicked out in the last five years alone. Shunned by their families and their community, they are left to find their own way. Many end up homeless, drug-addicted, alcoholic or working in the sex trade.

Last summer, a group of 26 “Lost Boys” filed a lawsuit in Utah against the church’s leaders, the church and the church’s United Effort Plan trust. The lawsuit charged the sect with conducting a “secret, cruel, abusive and unlawful practice of reducing the surplus male population by systematically expelling young males from the FLDS communities in which they were born and raised.”

The men alleged that they were expelled as minors after having been “purposefully and completely” shielded from the outside world and “intentionally deprived … of the necessary skills, knowledge and education that one would need to function in mainstream society.”

Those males who stay are exploited as cheap labour and are forced to “tithe” all but a bare sustenance allowance back to the United Effort Plan trust, which is currently conservatively estimated to be worth US$160 million. They are kept in line with promises that if they are good, they will be rewarded with the requisite number of wives being assigned them, and with threats that if they are bad they will lose their jobs in FLDS-run companies and be ejected from their homes on UEP-owned land.

As the authors of Life in Bountiful concluded, “The frustrations resulting from these extreme demands of obedience have no outlet in the group beyond furtive, abusive behaviour towards self and other.”

Jane Blackmore believes the FLDS is a cult and the only way to break it up is with education. “I’m confident that as men and women get an education, they will choose to go to postsecondary school and to work and choose to be older before they get married,” she said in an interview. “I think you will also see them having fewer children and as a result those children will be better educated.”

What they learn in school

But how to educate the children?

The B.C. government provides grants totalling nearly $800,000 to the two independent schools at Bountiful. Mormon Hills School is run by Winston Blackmore and his supporters, and the other school, Bountiful Elementary-Secondary, is run by the followers of Warren Jeffs, the American leader who excommunicated Blackmore. Jeffs controls not only FLDS doctrine but also the UEP trust.

There have been complaints about what is being taught in the schools. In the mandatory career readiness program a few years ago, the independent schools’ inspectors found that girls were only given the opportunity to learn to sew, cook and care for children. Boys had more options, although none of them included anything requiring postsecondary education or training.

There are complaints that the FLDS doctrine being taught as part of the curriculum is racist and promotes hatred of nonwhites. Blackmore himself made that allegation against the Jeffs-controlled Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School in a sworn affidavit. But when three independent school inspectors went to both schools in November 2004, they found only a few things amiss. Nothing, they said, was substantial enough to warrant pulling the schools’ certification.

But James Beeke, the head of B.C. independent schools, admitted that while inspectors are asked to determine whether racial, ethnic or religious superiority is being taught, they look only at the way religion is taught, and not at the content of religious teachings.

The inspection report on Mormon Hills School, which Blackmore established after losing control of the other school, said the texts were more than 30 years old and that classroom library materials “comprise a somewhat random collection of materials that is generally fairly dated.”

All of this has drawn public attention to the whole issue of independent schools and called into question their regulation, oversight and funding.

In 1993, the Life in Bountiful authors posed this question: “When does a culture stop being a culture and start being abuse?” It might have more pointedly asked: when does a religion stop being a religion and start being abuse?

But it doesn’t really matter how the question is put. What is clear is that for more than a decade, successive provincial and federal governments have done everything they can to ignore fundamentalist Mormon teachings and polygamy, and their consequences.