COLUMNIST Sat, June 12, 2004

Blind eye turned to forced polygamy

By MINDELLE JACOBS -- For the Edmonton Sun

Canada is known throughout the world for upholding equality rights but we've got a dirty little secret in our own backyard: We turn a blind eye to polygamy.

If 17-year-old Stephanie Palmer was still living in the Mormon fundamentalist commune of Bountiful, near Creston, B.C., her life would no longer be her own.

"I'd definitely be married now with at least two children and another on the way," she says.

Thanks to her mother Debbie's courage, however, she's living life as a normal teenager in Prince Albert, Sask. Debbie, who grew up in the polygamous sect and was married off at age 15 to the first of three husbands, fled the commune in 1988 with her eight children.

"Everyone is always surprised and shocked that (forced polygamy) is happening in a free country," says Stephanie. "Every time I think about it, I'm just glad my mother left."

Many others aren't so lucky, delegates at a conference on cults at the University of Alberta heard yesterday. The event, which continues over the weekend, is co-sponsored by the American Family Foundation and the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse.

Stephanie has more than 100 step-siblings in Bountiful. Her mother had five "sister" wives during her first marriage, four "sister" wives during her second and two during her third.

Debbie herself has 48 brothers and sisters. At least she escaped with all her kids. Her younger sister, Jane, who was one of former commune leader Winston Blackmore's many wives, left with one of her children two years ago.

But she had to leave her other six kids behind.

Bountiful teens are being pulled out of school and the girls are married off at early ages to much older men who already have numerous wives.

And the authorities haven't lifted a finger to help, says Debbie.

"It's a very alarming and disturbing situation," she told delegates after relating her story. "It doesn't seem to be getting better."

Polygamy is illegal in Canada, of course. The problem is getting the police to do anything about it, says Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall, who also spoke at the conference.

The authorities are reluctant to get involved for two reasons, he says. The B.C. government believes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms could provide a plausible defence for polygamy, says Marshall.

Secondly, the commune members contribute to the area economy and don't bother anyone.

The B.C. Attorney General's Office doesn't have the "heart" to prosecute them, Marshall suggests.

"I think the citizens of British Columbia ought to be outraged," he told me. "The fact is, this is a women's rights issue."

If the police won't prosecute, lawsuits are the way to go, he says, adding that "the last bastion" of justice is civil court.

"The province of British Columbia is a sitting duck and they should be," declares Marshall.

B.C. could be sued for depriving the Bountiful kids of education, he argues.

"The only tool people from fringe communities ... have to make their way in life later is an education," he says. "It almost guarantees their continued servitude for as long as they live if they don't get an education."

Marshall also holds out hope for women who've escaped polygamous cults and are fighting for sole custody of their kids.

Evidence of polygamy would be enough for a judge to deny a father custody and even access to kids, he says.

The B.C. authorities have considered polygamy a "victimless crime" for too long, says Debbie.

"They need to be sued," she says. "It's government-sanctioned trafficking of children and using them for sexual and breeding purposes.

The Edmonton Sun