17 Jan 2009

Author shares Canada's 'dirty secret' of polygamists in Bountiful

The Abbotsford Times - British Columbia
January 16, 2009

by Christina Toth | The Times

Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham wants women to write Attorney-General Wally Oppal a thank-you note for laying charges against two of the leaders of a polygamist sect in Bountiful in southeast B.C.

Last week the two men, Winston Blackmore and James Oler, were charged with polygamy, the practice of having multiple wives, which is illegal in Canada.

"He's taking a huge risk," she said, because the defendants are expected to argue they have the right to freedom of religion.

Although the RCMP recommended charges in 1990s, B.C. shied away from carrying them through because judicial experts believed the polygamy law wouldn't stand a Charter challenge.

Bramham spoke to the Business and Professional Women's club of Abbotsford on Wednesday on polygamy and her book, The Secret Lives of Saints - Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect - published last summer.

A community of about 1,500 people, "Bountiful has been Canada's dirty secret for more than 60 years," said Bramham.

It's the home of Blackmore, who has 26 wives and upwards of 116 children, and Oler, who also has several wives and offspring.

While polygamy is illegal, Bountiful, which began with just five families in the 1940s, has been undisturbed because of its isolation, apathy and lack of political will, Bramham said.

Despite the idyllic setting in the Kootenays and the community's name, the polygamous lifestyle limits women's opportunities and views women and children as chattel, she said.

The fundamentalist Mormon sect, which broke away from the main Mormon church decades ago, believes that a man needs at least three wives to get into a "celestial realm" of heaven and to become a god himself.

Women and girls are taught to believe to give themselves over to their husbands and fathers, "body, mind and soul." The women's primary role is to marry who they are told to marry and have lots of kids to get their husbands into that coveted spot in heaven.

Bountiful has ties to similar communities in Utah, Arizona and Texas, with whom they exchange young women - often teenagers, some as young as 12 - to wed middle-aged men, said Bramham.

While there are two independent schools in Bountiful, few students attend beyond Grade 9, and those who do receive a questionable education, she said.

And since "the arithmetic of polygamy is not reassuring for boys," these "lost boys" are either used for labour or set loose at a young age to fend for themselves. The children are treated as chattel by the "worthy" male leaders, said Bramham.

"Girls are valuable because their fathers can trade them for favours. Boys are the slave labourers, whose sweat allows [male leaders] . . . to support their dozens of wives and scores of children," she said.

What strikes Bramham particularly hypocritical is that B.C. stalls on any legal action, and even financially supports the polygamist community, the federal government aggressively upholds the anti-polygamy law by denying Muslim polygamists immigration applications, and even accepts female refugees escaping forced or polygamous marriages.

"We have troops in Afghanistan trying to liberate women and children . . . We have no moral authority to tell others what to do if we can not or won't uphold the human rights of our own citizens," Bramham said.

"We and the governments have failed the children of Bountiful.

"We have not protected their rights and freedoms or kept them safe from harm and exploitation," she said.

Bramham noted that 2006 federal government studies concluded that not only is polygamy harmful to women and children, but that Canada also risks international sanctions by allowing it to go on.

"Polygamy contravenes half a dozen international human rights conventions and declarations that Canada has signed, including UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

But the charges laid last week may well force Canadians, and its courts, to take a hard look at tolerance.

The guarantee of religious freedom is not limitless, nor can it accept any behaviour, said Bramham. But if Canada does not soon make that clear, the risks are huge, she suggests.

"If we make exceptions for different religious and ethnic groups, we risk losing the free, equal, tolerant and secular society that we and our ancestors have worked so hard to build."

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