8 Jan 2009

Former member of B.C. sect calls real horror and trauma in religious enclave the assault against children

The Calgary Sun - Canada
January 8, 2009

by Michael Platt

Debbie Palmer is no longer adamant that polygamy is wrong -- but she's damn sure what isn't right.

"The real horror and trauma has been the assault against children," said Palmer.

"That's both the child brides and the young men."

When it comes to multiple spouses and child brides, few speak with the first-hand experience of Palmer, who at the age of 15 became the third wife of a man 42 years her senior.

The son of that man, Winston Blackmore, was one of two elders arrested and charged yesterday in the town of Bountiful, B.C., about 300 km southwest of Calgary, a controversial religious enclave known for polygamy and thumbing a nose at critics.

Blackmore is accused of having 20 wives and James Oler two, a crime in Canada, but one endured by the B.C. government for six decades, since Bountiful was established near Creston by Blackmore's uncle.

A long investigation into the breakaway Mormon sect ended with the RCMP recommending polygamy charges in 1991, but legal experts balked, saying the polygamy section of the Criminal Code would not stand up to a Charter challenge.

And now, a different government and an attorney general willing to takes risks has finally acted.

Palmer, who's spent 20 years trying to get authorities to step in to protect the children of Bountiful, should be celebrating.

Instead, from her home in Saskatchewan, Palmer says the charges have her worried -- she fears the polygamy case will fall apart, and the child sexual assault charges she cried out for will collapse with it.

"Time will tell if they've chosen the right route," said Palmer.

"Instead of child sexual assault, they've decided to start from this place, and I'm not sure if you can justify it, but we'll see, at the end of the day."

After forced marriages to three husbands and eight resulting children, Palmer was a staunch opponent of polygamy when she fled Bountiful in 1988.

But in recent years, she's worked with an agency helping refugees from places like Africa, where there are cultures with multiple spouses, without the underage brides.

Her stance on polygamy has softened, but not her stance on Bountiful. That remains as rigid as ever.

"If the world was really black-and-white, there'd be no polygamy, and I used to feel that way -- but we're in a country where the definition of family is up in the air," said Palmer.

"It's a grey area, but when it comes to protecting children, there is no question."

Whatever happens to Oler and Blackmore -- the latter has admitted to marrying under-aged girls -- Palmer will remain bitter over the B.C. government's hesitation to file sexual abuse charges, even after she helped them build the case.

"They had all the information they needed in 1993, and they could have prevented abuse to hundreds of female children, but they were concerned with the definition of choice and consent," said Palmer. "They really did drop the ball, and the result is hundreds of new victims."

While Palmer worries about the looming courtroom clash, others are toasting B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal for finally taking the matter before a judge.

"We finally have an attorney general willing to say polygamy is against the law in Canada," said Audrey Vance, co-chair of Altering Destiny Through Education, an anti-polygamy group based in Creston. "I'm delighted that they've been charged."

Despite repeated warnings from prosecutors the polygamy case might fail, Oppal has decided to take the Bountiful elders to court on Jan. 21.

There, Blackmore, who leads one of two groups in the community, is likely to turn the witness stand into a pulpit promoting Bountiful's plural-marriage lifestyle, while denying any child abuse. He's done the same in past press interviews, including an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live in 2006.

Vance says she is happy to hear Blackmore's side of it, so long as the legal question of polygamy is finally settled.

"He loves the attention and he will claim religious freedom. He is challenging us as Canadians to do something about it," said Vance.

"Now we are."

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