Investigation launched into
polygamous sect dubbed 'Canada's dirty little
The peace of a secretive polygamous sect that has
quietly practised its controversial - and illegal - way of life in a
remote part of Canada for more than 60 years is about to be
Murmurings about alleged sexual abuse and forced
marriage within the 1,000-strong community of Bountiful have reached
fever pitch as women have fled the group with tales of
Zelpha Chatwin and her sister, Marsha, and her four
The "escaped wives" claim that girls in their early
teens have been compelled to wed middle-aged men and have been
routinely trafficked between Canada and the group's fellow Mormon
communities in Utah and Arizona.
They also complain of biased and truncated schooling
that brainwashes children into following the sect's way of life and
leaves them ill-equipped to live outside its confines.
Geoff Plant, the attorney general of the western
Canadian province of British Columbia, has now launched an extensive
investigation into the allegations.
"It's child abuse of the worst kind, within a
religious context," said Audrey Vance, co-founder of a support group
for former Bountiful wives in the nearby town of Creston. "One woman
who left said what goes on out there is evil.
"This is Canada's dirty little secret, but no one
round here wants to believe what's going on."
The community was founded in 1947 by members of the
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a group
that split from the Mormon Church. Lying about 320 miles south-west
of Calgary, near the US border, it occupies a sublimely bucolic spot
at the foot of the Kootenay mountains.
Marlene Palmer: 'So many
Bountiful does not appear on any map. There is no
sign indicating its cluster of homes, some makeshift, others
extensive with well-tended gardens littered with children's toys.
But there are "no trespassing" notices at its edge. Few residents of
Creston venture in. They lower their voices when asked about
Bountiful, and explain that while they disapprove of their
neighbours' lifestyle, they do not wish them ill.
Outsiders are not so sure. "Careful," a holidaying
father told his teenage children heading off to buy ice cream. "This
is the teenage pregnancy capital of the world."
Although polygamy is illegal under Canada's criminal
code, authorities have long turned a blind eye to Bountiful because
the country's Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom.
However, demands for an official inquiry have grown
louder. One of those calling for action is Debbie Palmer, 49, who
fled Bountiful in 1988, taking her six children. When she was 15,
she claims, she was forced to marry a 54-year-old man, becoming his
sixth wife, and was later "re-assigned" to two other husbands before
Her sister, Jane Blackmore, a midwife, left Bountiful
in 2002 with one of her seven children and is fighting a custody
battle with the husband she is divorcing. He is Winston Blackmore,
47, who calls himself the Bishop of Bountiful, and is said to have
at least 25 other "celestial" wives and more than 80 children.
"We know of girls as young as 13 involved in
trafficking across the border," claimed Mrs Palmer, who now lives in
Saskatchewan. "And some have been exposed to horrifically abusive
"What's happening in Bountiful is very worrying.
There is a lack of information and education that means young people
don't have choices.
"We have really terrible concerns about what is going
to happen there."
The campaigners hope the inquiry will lead to
prosecutions under the province's sexual exploitation laws that seek
to protect younger teenagers.
The Bountiful community was split by an internal
dispute two years ago. Mr Blackmore, the leader of one group,
appears confident, despite the investigation. "I have nothing to
hide," he said.
His sister, Marlene Palmer, 45, a mother of six who
was born in Bountiful, said: "So many lies have been told about us
that we welcome this investigation.
"We hope they leave no rock unturned so everyone can
see we are not hiding anything. Then maybe we can be left alone.
"No one is forced to be here. They can do whatever
they want. Some of my children have chosen different lifestyles, but
I still love them. They chose to leave. They did not leave because
they were abused."
She defended polygamy. "Legally, the men are only
married to one woman. [The other wives] feel like we are
Marsha Chatwin, 27, and her sister, Zelpha, 30, who
are both married to Mr Blackmore, agreed.
"I love living the way I live," said Ms Chatwin, a
mother of four. "I would never change it. It was our own free will
and choice and I want everybody to know that.
"We're real close. We're all family. There's always
someone around and you're never alone."
Meanwhile, Mr Blackmore's Share the Light website
warns Bountiful residents to brace themselves for the
"Discrimination. This is about discrimination," he
writes, but adds: "Like all persecutions, I am sure we will get
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