B.C. must confront polygamy
September 13, 2004, Page A14
B.C. must confront polygamy abuse
public pressure, the British Columbia government has finally launched an
investigation into the polygamous commune of Bountiful in B.C.'s southeastern
corner - action that's long overdue.
In July, B.C.
Attorney General Geoff Plant asked the RCMP to put together a team to
investigate allegations of forcible marriage, child abuse and sexual
exploitation in the reclusive community near Creston in the east
For years, a
handful of women who escaped the commune have called for government
intervention. More recently, school trustees raised concerns about the
children's education under doctrines taught at the commune's private
religious school which still receives government funding.
Canadians, it's surely disturbing that this breakaway Mormon sect has
continued for decades its practices of marrying off girls as young as 14 or
15 to much older men who may have dozens of wives.
In addition to
flouting Canada's law against polygamy, the religious teachings of the
commune leave women without rights and powerless to exercise freedom of
government is reluctant to use the anti-polygamy law to prosecute the sect's
leaders. It is unsure the law would withstand a challenge under the Charter
of Rights, which protects religious freedoms. Canada's Justice Minister Irwin
, however, is
confident the law would stand.
But over the
years, that speculative legal debate has become an excuse to avoid taking
action, even in response to related criminal allegations against the
community. How many Canadians seriously believe, for instance, that young
girls who are taught for years about the need for total obedience to male
religious leaders are entering into multiple marriages of their own free
well before the age of legal consent, what kind of choice do these teenagers
have? They'd hardly be aware of the existence of a Charter of Rights and
who escaped Bountiful and
pushing for government action,
says her experience is typical. At 15 years of age, she became the sixth
bride of a 55-year-old man and ended up having seven children by three
different men she was assigned to marry. Women are little more than chattels
and baby-making machines, she says.
school gets $460,826 in public funds. But most girls drop out at Grade 7 and
rarely does anyone graduate from high school. Trustees across B.C. are
appalled that the province continues to turn a blind eye to "a school
that doesn't graduate girls, allows 13 year olds to drop out so they can
become mothers, and doesn't follow curriculum," said one trustee.
Of course, there
is no easy way to deal with the conundrum posed by this community. The state
must tread carefully in a clash between mainstream Canadian values and the
practices of a particular religious sect.
While freedom of
religion is a basic Canadian right, governments also have an obligation to
protect children from abuse and women from overtly discriminatory practices.
criminal allegations is an important first step - though police will have a
hard time getting evidence of crimes as long as the victims are still living
in the community.
A B.C. government
report completed 10 years ago pointed the way for a peaceful, slower way of
bring the sect out of its seclusion with improved education, safe houses and
for those who
want to leave. That report must be worth a second look.
will keep the pressure on. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has just agreed to
hear her case alleging that the provincial government failed to protect girls
and women from abusive and discriminatory practices.
The case argues
that women who do escape struggle to overcome a "lifetime of abuse,
religious indoctrination, psychological coercion as well as fear and threats
be as sensitive and non-confrontational as possible - but it must happen
nonetheless. Bountiful residents' fellow Canadians can no longer avert their