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Rights tribunal agrees to hear polygamy case

Four ministries accused of failing to protect the girls and women of Bountiful

 

 

 Jim Beatty

 

Saturday, September 04, 2004

VICTORIA - The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has agreed to hear a case alleging the provincial government allowed discrimination to flourish in the polygamous community of Bountiful, The Vancouver Sun has learned.

Four government ministries are being accused of failing to protect girls and women from abusive practices in the well-known commune, located near the southeastern B.C. community of Creston.

The allegations, made by eight women, only one of whom lived in Bountiful, say the government was wilfully blind to polygamy, discriminatory education practices and religious indoctrination.

Former Bountiful resident Debbie Palmer, one of the complainants, said the B.C. government has failed to live up to its responsibilities.

"There is no other community that I know of in Canada where teachers and elders and heads of companies and bishops can take underage female children and impregnate them and get away with it," she said in an interview Friday. "It is blatant abuse. The ministries of the government aren't going to waffle for another decade."

The four ministries named are the Ministry of the Attorney-General, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services.

The complaint, which has been accepted by the tribunal, says many women who have escaped from Bountiful are struggling to overcome a "lifetime of abuse, religious indoctrination, psychological coercion as well as fear and threats of retaliation."

Palmer said she suffered physical abuse on the commune, was married off at 15 and ended up having seven children by three different men she was assigned to marry.

She said the government could have intervened by not funding an education system on the commune known to be discriminatory towards females, by apprehending girls being traded by men, and by doing more to investigate cross-border trafficking of women.

No one in the provincial government would respond to the allegations on Friday.

Government spokeswoman Cindy Rose said Attorney-General Geoff Plant, who is responsible for the government's legal-services branch, is the only official who could respond, but he is on holidays.

"The attorney-general is unavailable and won't be available until next week," she said.

Vikki Bell, the registrar and legal advisor for the Human Rights Tribunal, would not comment on any aspect of the Bountiful case, citing confidentiality concerns.

Speaking generally, Bell said it could take six months or more Government spokeswoman Cindy Rose said Attorney-General Geoff Plant, who is responsible for the government's legal-services branch, is the only official who could respond, but he is on holidays.

"The attorney-general is unavailable and won't be available until next week," she said.

Vikki Bell, the registrar and legal advisor for the Human Rights Tribunal, would not comment on any aspect of the Bountiful case, citing confidentiality concerns.

Speaking generally, Bell said it could take six months or more before a case normally reaches the public-hearing stage.

For more than 50 years, the Bountiful commune has been dogged by allegations of sexual exploitation of girls, polygamy, physical abuse, cross-border trafficking of women and racism.

Those allegations and renewed media attention have resulted in a new investigation by the RCMP and a second one by the attorney-general's ministry.

The Bountiful commune, which has a population of about 1,000, is run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormons.

Police officials on both sides of the border have had trouble investigating and prosecuting religious sects because it is notoriously hard to infiltrate the communities and interview alleged abuse victims. The laws around polygamy and religious freedoms also present problems.

The lawyer representing the women, Judith Doulis, said the government must now provide the tribunal with a detailed response to the complaints.

Doulis said her clients seek only one thing: an end to the alleged abuse.

"They want this outrageous situation to be addressed," she said. "How, within a free and democratic society, can you have a community which is so overtly discriminatory against females?"

Doulis said the complaint is being made by a group of women on behalf of those inside the commune, women and children who are often either too nervous or too brainwashed to come forward.

The complaint indicates posters, community bulletins and other forms of communication will be posted in or near the commune in the hopes that some women will come forward with direct allegations of abuse.

Palmer, who escaped from the commune in 1988 with her seven children, has been fighting for the rights of women at Bountiful ever since.

On Friday, she acknowledged the mounting public pressure to investigate Bountiful, but worries it will be a long time before action is taken to address alleged abuses.

"I've been working at this for such a long time that I'm not having a celebration party yet."

The Human Rights Tribunal is an independent, quasi-judicial body that addresses human-rights complaints in B.C., including allegations of discrimination based on gender, race, religion or age.

Because it's outside the criminal-justice process, no one found guilty of discrimination is jailed or excessively fined.

The tribunal is made up of human-rights experts and acts like a court, but is less formal and more flexible. If the tribunal determines a complaint is justified, it can order a remedy that would address the discrimination, rather than punish the perpetrator.

jbeatty@direct.ca

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

WESTCOAST NEWS

 

Jim Beatty