30 Sep 2008

Polygamy in Canada: Our dirty little secret?


If there are thousands of people illegally practising polygamy in Canada and the United States, why is our biggest battle for human rights happening overseas?

By Daphne Bramham

Violating the rights of women and children

In early November 2001, a month after the United States, Canada and a coalition of countries attacked Afghanistan in search of Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden, President George W. Bush talked about the kind of life women and children were leading under the tyranny of the Taliban.

"Women are imprisoned in their homes, and are denied access to basic health care and education. Food sent to help starving people is stolen by their leaders. The religious monuments of other faiths are destroyed. Children are forbidden to fly kites, or sing songs," he said. "A girl of seven is beaten for wearing white shoes."

The restrictions on women's rights overseas
A few weeks later, Laura Bush filled in for her husband on his weekly radio spot. "All of us have an obligation to speak out," she said. "We may come from different backgrounds and faiths -- but parents the world over love our children. We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity -- a commitment shared by people of good will on every continent."

That day, the U.S. State Department released a report that said the Taliban regime "systematically repressed all sectors of the population and denied even the most basic individual rights. It restricted access to medical care for women, brutally enforced a restrictive dress code, and limited the ability of women to move about the city...It perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage." The report went on to say that women were allowed to work in only "very limited circumstances," noting that "restricting women's access to work is an attack on women today. Eliminating women's access to education is an assault on women tomorrow."

The restrictions on women's rights at home
The State Department and the Bushes were referring to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but they might well have been talking about women and children in the United States and Canada living under the tyranny of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the largest polygamous sect in North America. Prophet Warren Jeffs controls every aspect of the lives of more than eight thousand people, from where they live to whom and when they marry.

Jeffs has banned school, church, movies and television. He has outlawed the colour red and even forbidden his followers to use the word "fun." Along with his trusted councillors, Jeffs has arranged and forced hundreds of marriages, some involving girls as young as fourteen and men as old as or older than their fathers and grandfathers. Many of the brides have been transported across state borders as well as international borders with Canada and Mexico. He has taught racism and discrimination against "Negroes," which is why the FLDS is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
The roots of the FLDS are in Mormonism, although the name itself is a recent one. When the mainstream church renounced polygamy in 1890, dissidents splintered off and continued to practise plural marriage. Some men sequestered their illegal families, making contact with other fundamentalists only when they or their sons needed more wives.

Others banded together to follow a "prophet" who claimed to hold the "keys to the priesthood," having received a revelation from God that he was to be a leader of men loyal to the Principle of Celestial Marriage. The fundamentalists believe they are the only true Mormons because they continue to hold to founder Joseph Smith's revelation that men must have multiple wives to enter the highest realm of heaven. There, in the "celestial kingdom," they will become gods, and their wives goddesses -- albeit goddesses who must serve at the table of their gods for all eternity.

Polygamy and Mormonism in Canada
Polygamy has been illegal in Canada and the United States since 1890. But fundamentalist Mormonism is thriving in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia. There are dozens of different groups and thousands of so-called independents, which makes it impossible to know how many fundamentalists there are.

Estimates range from thirty-seven thousand to one million across the continent, yet politicians have been loath to do anything about the people who call themselves Saints. Politicians have not just looked the other way, they have in many instances made it easier for the Saints' leaders to intimidate, control and abuse their followers. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Bountiful, British Columbia, and in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

Turning a blind eye on polygamy in British Columbia
In 1992, the B.C. government refused to enforce Canada's law by charging the bishop of Bountiful, Winston Blackmore, with polygamy. Citing studies by several leading legal experts, the B.C. government said the law would not withstand a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which, along with the national Constitution, guarantees freedom of religion and association.

Those rights, however, are not unlimited. Twice since its decision not to prosecute polygamy, the B.C. government has successfully gone to court to force children of Jehovah's Witnesses to submit to blood transfusions, even though that goes against their beliefs. The government's argument: religious belief cannot override a child's right to health.

Inconsistent court rulings
There are other conflicting rights. In 1879, in a landmark case called Reynolds versus United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments can intervene where the religious practice of polygamy undermines the rights of others.

"Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile [sic] of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?" The justices unanimously answered, "No."

Yet in 1992, the B.C. government effectively legalized polygamy. Since then Bountiful's population has more than tripled. In Utah and Arizona also, politicians have been loath to prosecute polygamists after a failed attempt to do so in 1953. The FLDS population in both states has doubled every decade since. To say that the Saints place a high value on large families is something of an understatement.

Reproducing for the good of the earth
Unlike Christians, who believe that the soul comes to the body at birth and leaves the body at death, the Saints believe in both a pre-mortal existence and the "lifting up" of the earthly body into heaven. They believe millions of spirits are waiting to be born into earthly bodies. And, as God's Chosen People, they believe they have a responsibility to bring as many of those spirits as possible into the world as Mormons -- rather than as something less worthy.

As Joseph Smith's friend and apostle Orson Pratt wrote, "The Lord has not kept them [the spirits] in store for five or six thousand years past and kept them waiting for their bodies all this time to send them among the Hottentots, the African negroes, the idolatrous Hindoos [sic] or any other fallen nations that dwell upon the face of the Earth."

Emboldened by the failure of governments to prosecute, Canadian polygamist Winston Blackmore no longer hides. A second-generation leader and one of North America's best-known and wealthiest polygamists, Blackmore makes no secret of the fact that he has many wives. How many, he won't say. But some of his wives, those who have left him, say that he has been married twenty-six times and has more than one hundred children.

On at least two occasions, Blackmore -- a spiritual leader, superintendent of a government-supported school and respected businessman -- has publicly confessed to having sex with girls who were only fifteen and sixteen years old. That's a criminal offence in Canada. His first admission was in 2005 at a "polygamy summit" organized by his wives in Creston, B.C. Nobody said or did anything when he said he'd married "very young girls" because God and the prophet had told him to. Blackmore has yet to be charged.

Polygamists -- exceptions to the rules?
Sexual abuse and exploitation of children by teachers and church leaders of all faiths usually lands on the front page of newspapers across North America, but Blackmore's confession did not make the national media and wasn't even reported in the Creston newspaper. Blackmore repeated his confession in December 2006 during an interview on the Cable News Network (CNN) with Larry King. Blackmore said he hadn't realized that one of his wives was only fifteen when they'd married. She had lied about her age, Blackmore said. But all women do that, don't they? he asked King.

Girls may well lie about their age; middle-aged, balding men often do as well. But that's why there are laws to protect children. It's no defence for a predator such as a bishop or a school superintendent to say that he didn't know the girl was only fifteen. It's our society's shame that the laws are not always enforced.

Going after "North America's Taliban"
After George and Laura Bush spoke out against the human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff recognized the parallels and began calling the FLDS "North America's Taliban." After more than one hundred years of his state allowing them to hide in plain sight, he has promised to do something.

Arizona's Attorney General Terry Goddard has also promised to end the theocracy that exists on his state's border. Both states began by laying charges against Warren Jeffs, first in Arizona and then in Utah. When Jeffs failed to appear in court to enter pleas, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) charged him with fleeing prosecution and put him on its Ten Most Wanted list along with Osama bin Laden.

Jeffs was arrested on the outskirts of Las Vegas in August 2006, and went to trial in the fall of 2007. He has yet to be charged with polygamy.* In Utah, he faced two counts of "rape as an accomplice" for having forced a fourteen-year-old girl to marry her nineteen-year-old first cousin.** The penalty is five years to life in prison. In Arizona, Jeffs faces five counts of sexual conduct with a minor and one count of conspiracy to commit sexual misconduct with a minor.

A handful of men loyal to Jeffs have recently been convicted for having sex with minors. Several Hildale police officers, more loyal to the prophet than to the laws of the state and country, have been stripped of their badges and the Colorado City public school is in receivership. A Utah court -- at the request of the states of Utah and Arizona -- has placed the FLDS trust fund in receivership and reformed it to ensure that the people who contributed to it will benefit from it. And the states work jointly within the twin communities to try to prevent domestic abuse and to help victims of such abuse.

*Update: As of Aug. 22, 2008, Warren Jeffs was charged with bigamy and sexual assault. He awaits trial in an Arizona jail for these criminal cases which stem from an April raid on the FLDS Church ranch in El Dorado, Texas.

**Update: Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to rape and on Nov. 20, 2007 he was sentenced to serve two consecutive prison terms of five years to life and was serving time in the Utah State Prison.

Investigating B.C. polygamists
In British Columbia, the RCMP spent nearly three years investigating Bountiful. Lawyers in the attorney general's ministry recommended that no charges be laid because they didn't believe there was a substantial likelihood of conviction.

Attorney General Wally Oppal didn't like that recommendation and hired a special prosecutor, who after two months recommended that the polygamy law be referred to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where justices could rule on whether the law would withstand a constitutional challenge. Oppal didn't like that answer either. A former Court of Appeal justice himself, Oppal believes it's not something the courts should do. So, he hired another special prosecutor -- more of a pit bull -- to give him the answer he wants. Charge one or more of them with polygamy, and send them to trial.

The ongoing offenses of Canadian and American polygamist leaders
Meanwhile, Jeffs and Blackmore continue to direct and control almost every aspect of their followers' lives. With the increased prosecution, Jeffs has ordered many of his followers to leave Utah and Arizona and to move to several new communities, including the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, where he consecrated the first fundamentalist Mormon temple while he was still a fugitive. Blackmore has moved many of his followers to Idaho and has made numerous trips to fundamentalist communities across the United States and Mexico to gather more faithful to his flock.

Girls are still being forced into marriages. Boys are still driven out to make the polygamous arithmetic work for the older men. Neither boys nor girls are getting an adequate education in either country. And Arizona's attorney general admits that reintegrating the communities into the mainstream after years of isolation and theocratic rule is still years away.

How is it that two nations, so clear-sighted in recognizing human rights atrocities in other countries and so fearless in taking on tyrannical rulers on the other side of the world, have been so blind to the human rights violations committed against their own women and children?

Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect. Copyright © 2008 Daphne Bramham. Published by Random House Canada.

This article was found at


1 comment:

  1. The answer is simple - is much more comfortable and "shiny" to send somewhere few platoons of heavily armed soldiers to secure the human rights than to admit we have some problems in our own country too and we would like to solve it...
    Like your blog, keep writing!