'Celestial' wives mount earthly defence of polygamous lives
No one in
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
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
There is a law in
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
Jane Blackmore is Winston Blackmore's first and only legal wife. Six
of their eight children still live in
"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
"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."
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
Blackmore has become a pariah to nearly
half the people in
He now leads a splinter
group of perhaps 600 Canadians. The other 400 in and around