Edmonton Journal

THE JOURNAL Monday, September 13, 2004

B.C. must confront polygamy abuse

Monday, September 13, 2004, Page A14

Edmonton Journal


B.C. must confront polygamy abuse

Under growing 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 Kootenays .

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.

To most 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 choice.

The B.C. 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 Cotler , 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 will?

Assigned husbands 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 Freedoms.

Debbie Palmer, who escaped Bountiful and is 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.

The Bountiful 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.

Investigating 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. But such investigations are only a start .

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 counselling for those who want to leave. That report must be worth a second look.

Meanwhile, Palmer 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 of retaliation."

Intervention must be as sensitive and non-confrontational as possible - but it must happen nonetheless. Bountiful residents' fellow Canadians can no longer avert their eyes.

(c) The Edmonton Journal 2004