29 Mar 2008

The polygamy problem

Vancouver Sun - March 29, 2008

Canadians don't condone the practices of fundamentalist Mormons, yet nothing is done about plural wives, 'lost boys' and abuse. Daphne Bramham's analysis is a must-read

Don Grayston, Special to the Sun

Book Review:



Random House Canada, 439 pages ($32.95)

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Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham took the road to Bountiful and found it paved with child abuse, forced marriage, greed, lies, fraud and the suckering of the provincial government. The story she tells in The Secret Lives of Saints, a well-researched book on the community, is gripping, illuminating and infuriating.

Bountiful, near Creston in southeastern B.C., has been the home of a polygamous community of fundamentalist Mormons since the 1940s. The villain of the piece is Winston Blackmore, millionaire bishop, husband of (at last count) 26 wives and father of 109 children. He is the folksy, shrewd patriarch of an essentially pre-modern society, which he controls by his knowledge of the modern/postmodern world in which the rest of us live -- a world to which he largely denies his followers access.

On the wall of his office is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which he confidently believes gives him, through its reference to freedom of religion, the right to practise polygamy as a religious duty.

Some history: In 1843, it was "revealed" to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (properly called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), that only men with multiple wives would reach the highest level of heaven. This "revelation" had become necessary, non-Mormons observed, because more women than men had been attracted to his movement. If they were to be married and have children, they would have to share the men available -- hence the idea that polygamy, as in Biblical times, was once again the will of God.

In 1890, however, the American government, negotiating about statehood with the Mormon-majority Utah Territory, demanded that no further such marriages be celebrated. (This was the same year that Canada criminalized polygamy.) In timely fashion, the head of the Mormon Church received a revelation that the practice of plural marriage could be suspended (not repudiated, since that would have meant disagreeing with Joseph Smith), and so statehood came in 1896.

Some Mormons rejected this accommodation with "the Beast" (i.e., the government) and continued to practise polygamy. The first of them had come to Canada in 1886, before this accommodation. After that, they were joined by others who also rejected it, and it is from them that Bountiful descends.

The Fundamentalist LDS is, of course, not recognized by mainstream Mormons as Mormon. This bothers the sect not a whit, since members see themselves as faithful to the original revelation, and the mainstream Mormons as apostates.

In real terms, this means that teenage girls can be "married" in ceremonies that have no legal standing in Canada to men as old as their grandfathers; that B.C. taxpayers have for years been funding schools that inculcate the total subservience of women to men; that young men -- the "lost boys," exploited by being forced to work for peanuts for FLDS-owned companies -- are being ejected from the community because the older men have no intention of letting them marry women their own age; that men who disobey the leadership can be "stripped" of their wives and children, who are then "assigned" to "obedient" members of the community; and that "lying for the Lord" to the police is entirely acceptable.

Bramham's summary, speaking of Blackmore and other cult leaders: "The depth of ... inculcated misogyny, the grotesqueness of [their] greed and the sheer depravity of their actions in this cult is stunning."

So where do things stand?

An RCMP investigation concluded last year that there was no substantial likelihood of convicting any resident of Bountiful for any specific crime.

Unsatisfied, Attorney-General Wally Oppal then appointed a special prosecutor, Richard Peck, who recommended that the government test the constitutionality of the polygamy law in court -- a recommendation rejected by Oppal, who, as a former judge, knows that judges resent being asked to do the work of politicians.

But Peck did convince Oppal that polygamy, rather than the child abuse that flows from it, is the root of the problem. A second prosecutor, Leonard Doust, has therefore been commissioned to prepare for prosecutions on the charge of polygamy.

My recommendation is that Bramham's publisher send a copy of this compelling and justice-demanding book to every member of our legislative assembly. Meanwhile, Winston Blackmore sits in his office, smiling up at the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and daring the Beast to act.

Don Grayston taught religious studies at Simon Fraser University from 1989 to 2004. He is president of the International Thomas Merton Society.

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