Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints (mormon)

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Some Family

Some Family

The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself
also available: eBook
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The Secret Lives of Saints

The Secret Lives of Saints

Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect
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The community of Bountiful has been Canada’s dirty secret for more than sixty years. Tucked away in the southeastern corner of British Columbia, it’s out of sight and out of mind. As its founders had hoped in the mid-1940s, when they chose this remote location to raise their polygamous families, the neighbours don’t really mind. They’ve got secrets of their own. So, they don’t ask and the folks in Bountiful don’t tell what really goes on out there under the cliffs of the Skimmerhorn Mountains.

Bountiful, B.C., is the polygamy capital of Canada. You won’t find it on any map because it’s a made-up name. The official name of the place you’re looking for is Lister, but even with a detailed map of the Kootenay region, you’ll have to search hard to find it. Lister was founded by First World War veterans, who, as they sailed home from Europe, dreamed of setting up a co­operative fruit farm. But there wasn’t enough water and the land wasn’t suitable for fruit trees. So, by 1923, their utopia in tatters, veterans began drifting away.

The closest town of any size is Creston – population 5,201 at last count. At the Creston Museum, you’ll learn that this is a region with a history rich in dreamers, ne’er­do­wells, rounders, speculators, prospectors, hermits, murderers and even religious terrorists who emigrated from Russia.

It’s little more than a ten­minute drive from Creston to the cluster of homes, schools, barns and trailers that Blackmore renamed Bountiful. According to the Book of Mormon, that’s what an apocryphal character, Nephi, named North America when he arrived by sea from the Holy Land around 600 BC. The Mormons – mainstream and fundamentalist – believe that North America’s aboriginal people are descendants of Nephi’s brother, Laman. The Lamanites, as Mormons call native Indians, denied Christ, fell in league with the Devil and killed Nephi’s descendants. Needless to say, Mormons had little time for Lamanites, until recently, when the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter­day Saints began to view American Indians as an opportunity for expansion.

The folks at the Creston Tourist Information office will give you directions to Bountiful, but they may do so grudgingly. The good burghers of Creston aren’t happy that their pretty little town shares the infamy that comes with having twelve hundred polygamists living nearby. They’d prefer that people associate Creston with apples or cherries, or the local beer that’s “brewed right in the Kootenays,” as the company’s slogan says. Or that Creston be thought of as a nice place to retire. If Creston has to be known for something, they’d rather it was for the first-rate marijuana – the “B.C. bud” that’s grown only semi­surreptitiously throughout the lush valley – than polygamy.

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously told Canadians that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Most people have forgotten that he said it during debates over a massive and controversial rewriting of the Criminal Code in 1967 that decriminalized “homosexual acts.” A few years later, his government again stepped back from the private realm of sexual relations and legalized abortion. Finally, Trudeau tried – with a new Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – to create a freer society where all men, women and children would have more choices open to them. Yet now Canadians – already burdened with the national characteristic of politeness – often repeat Trudeau’s quote to justify not poking into other people’s bedrooms even if it means ignoring abuse.

Certainly that’s what Creston’s elected representative to the regional district thinks. “We don’t see the monsters that everybody else says are living among us,” says John Kettle. He’s more concerned about the Hells Angels taking over the regional drug trade than about men having more than one wife. Kettle admits he’s been to Bountiful only a couple of times in the past twenty years, which is a bit surprising since he is the staunchest and most outspoken defender of Bountiful’s former bishop Winston Blackmore. Kettle describes Blackmore as one of his close friends. They’re also business partners.

In a letter to the local newspaper in 2004, local auctioneer Alex Ewashen gave full expression to the prevailing attitude about Bountiful:

What I see are healthy women and young ladies who do not need artificial makeup to make them look attractive . . . But, the poor things, they do not have a smoke pit at their school, they are not brought up to deem it their right to pierce their belly buttons and whatever else – why they don’t even have the freedom to show off their bare midriffs and their cleavages. And, horrors above all horrors, they are taught life skills in school, like cooking, sewing, and keeping house. And, yes, they do know how to raise children . . .
And how about the boys? To my knowledge I don’t know of any that didn’t grow up with a good work ethic. I can’t say that for the kids I used to be sent from the high school to introduce to the work force. Not long ago I saw a young Bountiful boy who I’m sure wasn’t old enough to have a driver’s license back up a 40-foot semi flat deck, I’m sure at 15 kilometres an hour in a perfectly straight line for a good 300 feet.
Ewashen concluded that many people are trying to return to simpler times. “Well, the Bountiful community doesn’t have to do that, they are there. If you want to go way, way back, God told Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply – he didn’t say to Eve to go forth and become a secretary, or a nurse, or a lawyer.” Of course, there’s no evidence that God told Adam to be a lawyer (or an auctioneer) either.

Polygamous communities might well produce some first­rate underage truck drivers. But they also have plenty of disadvantages that Ewashen overlooks. What goes on out there is not only illegal, it’s anathema to the core values and principles espoused by Canadians. Even though polygamy has been illegal in Canada since 1890, men are marrying multiple wives. Some of Bountiful’s men are in their forties and fifties when they marry girls as young as fourteen, which is Canada’s legal age of sexual consent. The legal age for marriage in B.C. is eighteen, with the consent of a B.C. Supreme Court judge required for any child under sixteen. But before they are even of legal age to be married, a third of Bountiful’s girls are impregnated by men who are at least a decade or more older than they are. Underage girls in Bountiful are two to seven times more likely to get pregnant than any other girls in the province.

Children – boys, mainly, but also girls – are frequently used as unpaid labourers in dangerous construction and forestry jobs. To ensure that those children don’t have any other choices, the leaders encourage them to leave school well before high­school graduation to become either wives and mothers or indentured labourers. It’s all done in the name of God and religion by men who are aiming to be gods with dozens of wives and hundreds of children serving them for all eternity.

Like most people in town, Creston’s mayor, Joe Snopek, is uncomfortable about looking into the bedrooms of Bountiful. In 2004, he said polygamy “is no different than a gay lifestyle or being a Jehovah Witness or anything else . . . And I sure would hate someone investigating my lifestyle.” But by the time B.C.’s attorney general ordered a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigation into allegations of sexual abuse, child brides and polygamy in 2005, so many journalists had asked Snopek about Bountiful that he’d grown weary of defending it. He’d even begun openly talking about some of the other abuses.

Snopek recalled how he had reported a Bountiful company to the Workers’ Compensation Board and the B.C. Labour Ministry a few years earlier because the contractor was using a crew of barefoot children – some as young as six and none older than thirteen – to pull shingles off the roof of a Creston home. “They [the WCB and Labour Ministry] didn’t do anything,” Snopek said. “The finding was that it was a family operation and they can do pretty much what they want. It puts us [the city] in a nasty position in one way. Where are the powers that be in government to shut down companies like that or do something about it?”

Snopek welcomed the RCMP investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse, child brides and trafficking of girls, and he urged police to look deeper into the community: “It’s time they [the government] stepped in and took a good hard look and not just at the smoke and mirrors that Winston [Blackmore] has been playing for the media.”

Still, many people in Creston do not want to get rid of the polygamists claiming to be “saints” – people who, much to the horror of mainstream Mormons, continue to assert that they are the only true members of Joseph Smith’s church. Many Creston businesses are afraid to lose customers. A local hardware store that stocks a small selection of books along with the usual fare of nails, paint and lumber, had Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy on its shelves. The book is former resident Debbie Palmer’s gruelling account of the abuse and neglect she witnessed growing up in the fundamentalist community. The owners pulled the book off the shelves when people from Bountiful threatened to boycott their store.

Polygamists and their big families spend a lot of money on cars, trucks, gasoline, groceries, shoes and other necessities. Because of this, many people don’t want them gone, but, at the same time, they don’t want to know about polygamy. They don’t want to talk about it or have anybody else talk about it. If that means becoming inured to the sight of pregnant teenagers pushing a baby carriage while they hold the hand of a toddler, so be it. If it means another year when the New Year’s baby is the progeny of a polygamist, well, whatever. If the baby’s mother is little more than a child and the father is old enough to be the mother’s grandfather, well, let’s not get into that. And so what if everybody looks suspiciously similar and most have the same few last names because cousins marry cousins and stepfathers impregnate stepdaughters? They’re not hurting us.

But when Mayor Snopek recently had city staff calculate the economic impact of Bountiful on the community, they found that the Saints account for only about 10 per cent of the total economy. Of course, Snopek hasn’t really broadcast that to his citizens. So maybe people don’t know the limited extent of the Saints’ economic impact. Maybe they are only going on the perceptions gained at the grocery checkout. But it’s more likely that it’s not about the money at all. People just don’t want to see what’s in front of them.

Even though the Saints stick mostly to themselves, there’s evidence of them all over Creston. Logging trucks emblazoned with the names of their companies – J. R. Blackmore & Sons and Oler Brothers – frequently rumble along the wide street. Creston residents don’t find it unusual when a couple of “sister­wives” push a grocery cart or two up to the checkout at Extra Foods and start unloading several dozen eggs, litres of milk and large sacks of flour for their family of thirty or more.

Several of Winston Blackmore’s wives are on the local search and rescue team. And in the winter, a couple of nights a month, some of Blackmore’s sons, nephews, cousins and other relatives rent ice to play hockey at the local recreation centre, wearing sweaters bearing the J. R. Blackmore & Sons name. Until recently Blackmore paid as much as forty thousand dollars a year to rent ice time so that his family and others from Bountiful could skate without having to mix with outsiders – “gentiles” as they call all nonbelievers. Of course, with more than one hundred children of his own, Winston has enough Blackmores to start his own league. Yet, while Blackmore doesn’t want his sons, daughters and followers’ children socializing outside the community, he sees nothing wrong with lacing up his skates and playing in the Creston old-timers’ league alongside his good friend Chris Luke, the chief of the Lower Kootenay Indian band, which has leased thousands of acres of land to Blackmore Farms.

Creston businessmen may worry about losing Bountiful’s trade, but few people ask how a man like Blackmore can support his twenty-some wives and all those children. Few wonder just how many of their tax dollars go to subsidize them. And, if you are an outsider who asks about it, the folks in Creston are likely to get their backs up and tell you to mind your own business. Which is exactly what Blackmore and the folks in Bountiful say when they’re asked.

Many Creston residents will tell you that the Bountiful people don’t do drugs. They’ll say that they don’t drink alcohol, that many won’t touch even coffee or tea, for that matter. What lots of them say is that, from what they can see, the people look healthy and happy. What they don’t realize is that the people in Bountiful are programmed by their prophets to look happy.

The Bountiful people are taught from birth to “keep sweet.” Happiness is the only emotion that’s allowed. Anger, frustration, depression and especially rebellion are not allowed. They’re taught to suppress those emotions and to put all their energy into obeying the word of their prophet, who speaks directly to God.

Saints are also taught that it’s okay not to tell the truth to outsiders, especially if it means protecting the secrets of how many mothers and how few fathers there are or of how the fathers are ripping off the evil government, a practice known as “bleeding the beast.”

That’s the problem: most of the townsfolk don’t know much about Bountiful and neither do their politicians or police. Politicians have shamelessly curried favour with Bountiful’s leaders, accepting campaign donations and appointing some of the community’s members to government boards. To indiscriminant politicians, the Saints are just another group in Canada’s vote­rich multicultural tapestry.

To get to Bountiful, you follow paved backroads through the settlements of Erickson and Canyon, past farms and rolling meadows where cattle and horses graze. At a T-crossing, the road to Bountiful goes straight towards the mountain. You’ll know you’re nearly there when you see the first no trespassing sign. You will not be welcomed in this community where all but one or two small parcels of land are owned by the church’s United Effort Plan Trust (UEP). It is a tenet of the faith that land, labour and material goods are to be handed over to “the priesthood.” In theory, the bishop and the elders then divide it up according to each person’s individual needs. In practice, the bishops and elders get the biggest and best houses as well as the most – and prettiest – wives.

Once upon a time, at the sight of a stranger’s car, flocks of children used to scatter like small birds, abandoning their bicycles or trampolines. It doesn’t happen as much any more – even the people of Bountiful are getting used to being a tourist draw. But mothers are still likely to gather up their little girls in long dresses, pulling them into the bushes or the closest house. The boys – especially the bigger ones – cluster together and are likely to shout, “Go away! Leave us alone!” They’ll all be dressed the same in jeans or black pants with long-sleeved shirts, even on the hottest days. They might gesture rudely. Occasionally, strangers have felt threatened when men in pickup trucks with gun racks follow closely behind them. That’s rare, but it’s happened often enough to keep most people from Creston from venturing out to see what their neighbours are up to.

Blackmore’s house is at the entrance of Bountiful, where the road splits to circle the community. It’s two storeys high and looks like a 1960s motel; it’s flanked on one side by an enormous garage and on the other by a large building with a wide, covered porch. The kitchen and the dining room are located in the large building.

Outside the fenced compound, there are signs saying no trespassing and private road. The compound itself is set back from the road. A strip of grass that’s usually littered with abandoned bicycles of all sizes, shapes and colours gives way to a huge gravel parking lot. Triangular concrete barriers keep the clusters of vans and trucks from parking too close to the house.

Next to the compound is the midwifery clinic where many of the community’s babies are born, away from the prying eyes of gentile doctors and nurses at Creston Hospital. Its waiting room is lined with dated photographs that show the midwives and all the babies they’ve birthed.

Farther along is the first of the two government­funded private schools that are attended by nearly four hundred children. Blackmore’s school is called Mormon Hills, the other school, controlled by his rival, Warren Jeffs, is called Bountiful Elementary­Secondary School. Jeffs is the prophet of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He thwarted Blackmore’s attempt to become the prophet in 2002, and then promptly excommunicated him. About two-thirds of the Canadian Saints – eight hundred or so people – stuck with Blackmore and about five hundred transferred their loyalties to Jeffs.

Mormon Hills is a makeshift affair that Blackmore cobbled together after the split. The school consists of two buildings, with some of the classes held in a house that’s been renovated for classroom purposes. On the hill above is the more established Bountiful Elementary­Secondary School. In front, spelled out in white­painted rocks is the community’s motto: keep sweet. Together, the schools get more than one million dollars a year in provincial government grants. At both, the provincial curriculum is taught through the filter of their questionable religious values and beliefs. But that’s apparently okay with the government, whose inspectors are somehow supposed to enforce the prohibition on teaching hate without having the power to review the religious materials.

Beyond the big, older houses where the two school principals live, and past the creek, are the slums. There, when the weather is warm, shoeless children play in the dirt outside dilapidated trailers. Wood for the stoves is piled alongside the trailers. At the opposite end of the community are the “suburbs.” Here, off the circular road, there are lovely, large, recently constructed log homes on huge lots. Some belong to Jeffs’s followers and some to Blackmore’s. While you can tell a Bountiful man’s status by the size and quality of his house, you can’t look at his house and determine which spiritual leader he follows.

The split between the two men came without warning. So neighbours, who a few years ago watched out for one another’s kids, shared stories and gossip, now no longer even acknowledge one another. Mothers no longer speak to daughters or sons. Contact between grandmothers and grandchildren has been severed. Jeffs’s followers have been told to limit their communication with outsiders. A general store opened recently, but it serves only people loyal to Jeffs. Blackmore’s followers aren’t welcome.

While Bountiful is the heart of Canadian fundamentalist Mormonism, not all the Saints live there. Hundreds are scattered throughout nearby communities in both British Columbia and Idaho, and there’s a small outpost in Alberta where men and boys labour in mills and logging camps for companies owned by fundamentalists.

But, on weekends, all of the Saints converge on Bountiful for two separate church meetings where their preferred prophet will remind them that they are God’s Chosen People, and that they owe their hearts, minds, souls and most of their worldly goods to the prophet, who is God’s mouthpiece. All men, who become members of the priesthood when they are twelve, will be reminded of their duty to tithe a tenth of what little they earn to the church’s United Effort Plan trust. They will be reminded that if they are obedient, they will be blessed with multiple wives, without whom their entry to the highest realm of heaven is uncertain. Women and girls will be told again and again that they are to give themselves mind, body and soul to their fathers and later their husbands, who are their priesthood heads and their pathway to heaven. And their prophets tell them that no matter what they do in God’s name, they are safe. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects them.

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