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.

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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.