Electronic Edition

Calgary Herald

THE HERALD August 7, 2004

'Celestial' wives mount earthly defence of polygamous lives

B.C.'s Bountiful community under intense scrutiny

Daphne Bramham

CanWest News Service

August 7, 2004

CREDIT: Ian Smith, CanWest News Service

Jane Blackmore , Winston Blackmore's first and only legal wife, left the polygamous community of Bountiful .

Debbie Palmer

CREDIT: Ian Smith, CanWest News Service

CREDIT: Ian Smith, CanWest News Service

Cherene Palmer, one of Winston Blackmore's wives, has 14 children and no regrets about her life.

No one in Bountiful disputes the fact that most first-time mothers who walk into this polygamous community's midwifery clinic are younger than 18.

Nobody disputes the fact that the fathers are often three or four times older than the mothers. And nobody disputes that many are the "plural wives" -- or concubines -- of men much older than them.

After all, when it comes time to register the births, midwife Jane Blackmore says the fathers in this religious community near Creston in south-central B.C. happily sign their names on the forms that are sent to the provincial government.

They are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and they believe polygamy is the "new and everlasting covenant."

It is what separates them from mainstream Mormons. Fundamentalists claim they are the true Mormons and it is the mainstream church that has broken away from Joseph Smith's teachings -- in particular his directive on polygamy.

What Marlene Palmer, a plural wife and the public defender of other plural wives, disputes is whether the women and girls have a choice about becoming "celestial wives" in their teens.

"Women and girls do get to choose who they marry," she says emphatically. "Most are 17, 18 and some are as old as 20 when they get married. There have been some who are 16 and occasionally some who are 15 . . .But they never marry without their parents' permission."

Palmer, 45, is Winston Blackmore's sister. Blackmore , a powerful businessman and wealthy landowner, is the former bishop of Bountiful . He has 26 wives and more than 80 children. Blackmore has repeatedly said that polygamy is a religious practise and as such is protected by the Canadian Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.

Palmer has six children and works full-time for her brother's company, J.R. Blackmore and Sons Co.

"I was 17 when I married the first time and 32, the second time and absolutely I had a choice," she says. "It's fabulous. I really love the man."

However, she refuses to say who her second husband is and how many sister wives she has.

The B.C. government is launching a wide-ranging probe into every aspect of the reclusive, 57-year-old community. Among other things, the investigation is determining whether what is happening in Bountiful is legal.

There is a law in Canada that prohibits people in positions of power and authority from having sex with anyone under 18. There is a law against forcible sexual intercourse with anyone regardless of their age. There is also a law prohibiting polygamy or multiple spouses.

B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant has promised a police investigation to find out whether any of those laws are being broken. Plant also said the government will look into allegations that racism and sexism are being taught at the government-supported school, as well as allegations that plural wives are claiming to be single mothers so they can collect welfare and child support.

Midwife Jane Blackmore confirms that the youngest mother she has seen was only 14. But there have been others who are 15 and 16 when their babies are born. Most women, she says, have had their first child by 18.

All of her young mothers are healthy and so are all of the babies that she's delivered so far.

"For the most part, younger women have babies easier," says Jane Blackmore . "But the younger women have other problems." She declines to elaborate.

Blackmore is guarded in what she'll say. Her caution and reluctance to criticize is not surprising. She wants to remain Bountiful 's midwife. But more importantly, she wants to maintain her close family ties.

Jane Blackmore is Winston Blackmore's first and only legal wife. Six of their eight children still live in Bountiful even though Jane left her husband and the town two years ago.

"I left because I was finished living that way. I just want to live..." she paused. "More time will have to pass before I can say anything more than that."

Jane Blackmore wants Bountiful to change. But pressed about what changes she would like to see, she is reluctant to give specifics.

"My concerns are not mainly for the girls, but for the community in general. I'd like there to be more education and more opportunities. The main change will come when there is more education."

Bountiful 's women have families far in excess of the Canadian average. By the time they make their last trip to Jane Blackmore's clinic on Bountiful 's main street, they usually have nine or 10 other children at home. Those children are part of large extended families that usually include one or two of their father's "plural wives" and dozens of half-brothers and half-sisters.

Debbie Palmer, 49, shares none of her younger sister's ambiguity about which way of life is better.

She left the community in 1988 and has been campaigning against what she calls the sexual exploitation and assault of Bountiful's women and children, the forced marriages, the forced obedience and the dismal level of education ever since.

At 15, Palmer became the third "wife" to Winston Blackmore's father -- Ray Blackmore , a man 42 years older than her at the time.

After Ray Blackmore died, Debbie was re-assigned first to 54-year-old Sam Ralston. By the time she left, she had had three different "husbands" and eight children. She was never legally married.

The talk of abuse, neglect, brainwashing and lack of education makes Marlene Palmer fighting mad -- particularly at Debbie Palmer, who was once a sister-wife.

But it's difficult to tell when Marlene is mad. She has taken to heart the church motto to "keep sweet." Her anger is masked by smiles and laughter.

Palmer disputes the allegations, especially the suggestions of abuse.

"I am part of Creston's emergency response team," says Marlene. "I work with the police. I would never, ever keep abuse quiet. If I knew a child or a woman was being abused, I would go to the police."

But the tensions in the community may have more to do with an internal power struggle over control of the estimated 13,000 followers in Canada and the United States .

Blackmore has become a pariah to nearly half the people in Bountiful .

He now leads a splinter group of perhaps 600 Canadians. The other 400 in and around Bountiful follow Warren Jeffs , Rulon's son, an American who wrested control of the church from senior leaders like Blackmore after his father's death two years ago.

(c) The Calgary Herald 2004

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