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Aug. 6, 2004. 01:00 AM
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Polygamists' wives defend commune life
`We're happy and we're not abused' Woman welcomes probe by police


VANCOUVERWives at a British Columbia polygamist commune say they welcome a police probe into allegations of child abuse, forcible marriage and sexual exploitation.

"As far as I know, we don't have anything to hide," Marlene Palmer, a 45-year-old mother of six, said in an interview yesterday from the community of Bountiful in southeastern B.C.

"We're happy and we're not forced and we're not abused.

"We feel like we're very content in our lifestyle."

B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant announced last month that the RCMP was forming a team to investigate the allegations in the community of about 1,000 near Cranbrook.

For years the group at Bountiful, a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has been accused of making teenaged girls concubines or "celestial wives" of much older men who have other wives.

Although polygamy is illegal in Canada, Victoria has been reluctant to act against the commune because it has obtained legal opinions that the group could successfully launch a constitutional argument that such a move violates their right to freedom of religion.

Palmer, who has lived her entire life at Bountiful and is in a polygamist relationship, said about 80 women from the community will meet this weekend to draft a news release. They plan to send it to the media to explain how they feel about life there and what's happening, "and try to dismiss some of the myths, some of the lies that are going around," she said.

"Words don't really hurt us a lot," Palmer said. "But it is kind of frustrating when so many lies are spread about us.

"We're just normal people."

Bountiful was established in the ruggedly beautiful area north of the Idaho border in the late 1940s, and has flourished despite an RCMP probe more than a decade ago that recommended charges be laid. The B.C. crown ignored the recommendation.

Palmer said allegations that dog Bountiful come from people "discouraged and frustrated" with their religion who've decided to leave it behind.

"And, of course, when they're upset at that religion they say all kinds of horrible things about it," she said. "It's a sad situation.

"I would not hide abuse if I knew of a case with children or women or men."

Former Bountiful resident Debbie Palmer, 49, said she "was not surprised at all" to hear some women in the community were vigorously defending it.

"To them, it's everyday life, they don't know any different," said Palmer, who was married to the same man as Marlene Palmer when she fled the community in 1988. She had eight children from three assigned marriages including one where she became, at 15, the sixth wife of a 55-year-old man.

"Years ago, I would have been one of the most passionate defenders of what was going on," she said from her Saskatchewan home. "It's understandable when you're caught up in it."

RCMP Corporal Cate Galliford said police are still deciding how to approach the probe, which will involve provincial ministry of children and families staff.

Additional articles by Daniel Girard

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