12 Feb 2009

Show me the evidence: Education and roundabout legalities in Bountiful, B.C.

The McGill Tribune - February 10, 2009

by Carolyn Yates

On January 7, Winston Blackmore and James Oler, the leaders of a polygamous community in Bountiful, British Columbia, were arrested on charges of polygamy. While the court proceedings against them are just beginning, the charges have led to a greater debate about polygamous communities and their alleged connection to illegal immigration, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Insufficient education is preventing action and improvement in the community-a problem which is compounded by murky legal waters.

"The question is whether or not [Blackmore will] succeed in convincing a court that the prosecution should fail because the section of the Criminal Code in question-section 293-stands in violation of his rights [under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms]," says Angela Campbell, a professor at the Faculty of Law at McGill who has conducted research on and in Bountiful. "This is going to go on for a long, long time."

Investigations and recommendations

Bountiful is a rural community located close to Alberta and the American border. It is home to an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway sect of the original Mormon Church, which believes in, among other things, polygamy. While a much-publicized raid last spring on the Fundamentalist ranch in Eldorado, Texas, showcased images of a walled and gated community, Bountiful is less guarded. The community-which Blackmore named-is the hub for a larger community of polygamists, some of whom live in the nearby towns of Creston, Cranbrook, Erickson, Canyon, and Yahk.

Investigations into alleged criminal activity in Bountiful began in the late 1980s. In 1991, the RCMP recommended that B.C.'s then-attorney general Colin Gabelman lay charges. However, Gabelman received several legal opinions suggesting that the polygamy law might not withstand a challenge by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the grounds of religion. As a result, he never approved the charges. In 2005, Wally Oppal, the current attorney general, was appointed. He stated that the situation in Bountiful was "intolerable" and appointed a series of special prosecutors to revisit the issue. After rejecting the recommendations of the first two, Oppal appointed a third special prosecutor, who asked the RCMP to begin an investigation in June of last year. The results of that investigation led to the current allegations.

Problems with the polygamy law

Section 293 of the Canadian Criminal Code prohibits polygamy. It was originally enacted to prevent American Mormons and ex-Mormons from immigrating to Canada after the Mormon Church banned polygamy in 1890, but hasn't been used in litigation for over half a century.

The evidence needed to file a polygamy charge is scant: someone saying they have multiple spouses is enough. In the case of Bountiful, after one marriage, any additional wives are recognized in a religious ceremony, but not by the state. The law is also open-ended, and has the potential to apply to relationships that would not typically be considered polygamous, such as a married person having an affair.

Even now, the law is only being enforced because, despite a series of investigations over a number of years, the RCMP has never found anyone to testify on the alleged sexual exploitation or abuse within the community.

"The common presentation of polygamy, especially in FLDS groups, is that women are kind of controlled, and not given any choice about marriage; they have no option but to marry into a community that's very sheltered … and then they are not educated," says Campbell. "I've always wondered … if there's evidence that these practices are going on."

Campbell has researched the government's reasons for using the charge of polygamy instead of one of the other possible charges that members of Bountiful might face, such as child abuse, sexual exploitation, forcible confinement, or sex with someone under the age of consent-charges that would not be subject to a Charter challenge.

"The bottom line is that the state, even after doing investigations on several occasions over many years, has not been able to come up with evidence as to independent harms apart from polygamy. They haven't been able to prove assault or exploitation," says Campbell.

One problem with finding witnesses for heftier charges is the variable impressions that visitors get of the community­-impressions which depend on who they see, what they see, and when they visit. The results from first-hand interviews with community members are also questionable.

"They [talk] occasionally, but they're also told they can lie in the name of the Lord, and so they can lie to you," says Daphne Bramham, author of The Secret Lives of Saints, which discusses the situation in Bountiful.

The result is a prosecution based on section 293, which requires less evidence.

The people, the place, and the patterns

Despite the possibility for conflicting impressions of the community, there are some continuities between different accounts.

The FLDS believe that men need three wives to get into heaven. Women can only get in with the guidance of a man. The marriages are determined by either the Bishop or Prophet, who receives a revelation about who should get married from God.

"They really don't have much choice in the matter," says Bramham.

During her research, Campbell observed a different interpretation of marriage.

"[The women] are very much involved in the choice of who they marry," says Campbell.

Whether or not the marriages are consentual, they still occur when girls are quite young-frequently before they finish high school.

"They keep the girls in line by marrying them off young, and they don't get to finish high school until after they have kids, and not very many of them get to finish high school," says Bramham.

"They're told from the time they're little, little girls that they must give themselves to their husbands mind, body, and soul. All girls are taught that they're so weak-minded that they must always have a man telling them what to do, because women can't decide for themselves what is best."

But women are not the only ones allegedly facing exploitation. The nature of polygamy, as it is practiced in Bountiful, means that, because some men have multiple wives, some men have none. Getting pushed out of the community for posing a threat to the older leaders is also always a risk. In order to prove their loyalty and get even one of the three wives necessary to get into heaven, many boys leave school shortly after grade eight and work for companies owned by the leaders of the community for far below minimum wage.

"The powerful leaders … get them to work for virtually nothing to prove their loyalty, both to the leader and to the Church, in the hope that they'll get a wife," says Bramham.

Regardless of gender, the end result is the same: lacking an education and fearing the outside world, many opt to stay in the community.

"The problem is that you only have a grade eight or nine education and you've been taught all your life that people on the outside world are evil," says Bramham. "And once you leave the community you become an apostate and you're shunned and you can't go back."

Escaping through education

Bountiful has two schools: the Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School, which is attended by Oler's followers, and Mormon Hills School, which is attended by Blackmore's followers. Originally, all students went to Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School. But the community split in 2002 following Blackmore's excommunication from the FLDS by Warren Jeffs, Prophet of the FLDS. Blackmore's students now attend class in a converted barn. Followers of Oler, who is himself a follower of Jeffs, continue to attend the original school.

"Blackmore claims to be a true Mormon, following the revelations of Joseph Smith (the founder of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)," says Bramham. "He believes that the FLDS strayed from the fundamentals."

Each school has roughly 125 students and both are independent, which means that they get 50 per cent of their funding from the government but are allowed to teach material such as religion, which would not be allowed in public schools.

"The children in the independent school in the Bountiful community are funded by the provincial government, and they were teaching racism and polygamy, which of course right now is against the law in Canada," says Audrey Vance, co-chair of the Creston-based group, Altering Destiny Through Education.

Altering Destiny Through Education seeks to give young residents of Bountiful a chance at a different life through education. It began several years ago as a letter-writing initiative intended to pressure the B.C. minister of education into taking action in Bountiful, and while it has shrunk from over 30 members down to 12, the community support is still strong.

"We decided that our main goal was to write all these letters to the minister of education saying that if B.C. taxpayers are funding these schools, these students should be getting [a] grade 12 [education]," says Audrey Vance, co-chair of Altering Destiny Through Education. "We have a very dedicated group and we have lots of people that support it."

Since Vance's letter-writing campaign and the RCMP investigation in 2004, Blackmore's school has improved: it is now open to certified teachers from outside the Bountiful community, though the FLDS school remains closed. Until the recent improvements, Bountiful had gone 10 years without a high school graduate. The first class graduated last year and included about 10 students.

"We really feel that education is the only thing that's going to make the change in that community," says Vance.

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