The only telling signs that this was a polygamist community were the compound style homes that seemed to stretch for blocks. My husband steered the car around a corner, my parents in their SUV behind us, when the church appeared. Or rather, the temple, I suppose. There was no sign on it. We assumed this was to discourage gawkers like ourselves from getting out of their vehicles and posing for the 'gram in front of a sign that read, The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, Bountiful.
We were on our way to Lethbridge to visit family, a two-day drive through South-Eastern British Columbia and then Alberta. We'd stayed the night in Creston, BC, in a strange hotel that looked like it hadn't been updated since the 70s and smelled of stale Player's Light butts extinguished in Bud Light. It was gorgeous in the photos on the booking site I had used a few weeks prior. Now, I was sure the rooms had an hourly rate, too. We were pretty eager to leave.
The night before, as we had all gathered in the shag-carpeted common area of the hotel, I threw it out there,
"You know, Bountiful is only a few minutes away from here."
"Bountiful? What's that?" My mom sipped her beer.
I told her all I knew, which wasn't much. It was settled by polygamists fleeing the persecution they'd experienced in the U.S. There were legal issues with the B.C. government, as well. Women were married off at a young age to much older men. They were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith was a swindler. Those sorts of tidbits. I didn't know the whole story, but we all agreed we would get up early the next morning, escape this haunted motor inn, and take a scenic drive through Canada's most notorious polygamist settlement.
The early morning mist settled on the fields of what looked like salad greens and maybe pumpkins. There was not a solitary soul in sight. We steered around a child's three-wheeler left in the middle of the crumbling road. It wasn't peaceful quiet; it was eerily quiet. Sure, it was early, but this was a rural community with fields to tend to and flocks of children to rear, animals awaiting care. Where was everyone?
My unease grew as we continued to tour what was just a neighbourhood. I'd been expecting a full-blown town, but it amounted to a compound: one school, maybe fifty houses, a church and about a dozen potholed roads. I would have thought there would be more to it. After all, the community had been there since 1947. That's seventy-two years to build a bustling town, but it certainly was not that. Perhaps it was because so many born and raised in Bountiful grew up to leave. I had only been there a few minutes, and I was ready to go myself.
I felt like an intruder, as though at any point, someone would come out on their porch with a shotgun and try to scare us away. I couldn't help but feel like the people in Bountiful were purposefully hiding as we took a leisurely drive through their neighbourhood, and I became impatient, asking my husband to get us out of there.
Bountiful is beautiful; there is no question. It's nestled at the base of British Columbia's Skimmerhorn Mountains, surrounded by oceans of greenery nourished by the humid climate. The tranquillity would provide the perfect backdrop for a yoga retreat or perhaps a Buddhist monastery. The only sounds besides our car engines were birds singing in the morning dew and the wind whistling through the abundant trees. Bountiful would be, by any metric, an idyllic place to live, raise a family, and grow some crops.
But you couldn't see the strife from the decaying country roads. For that, I had to bury my head in the books. After our offputting stop in Canada's polygamy capital, I did that. I educated myself on the people who had hidden in their homes and watched from behind their window blinds as we took our voyeuristic tour of the infamous Bountiful. The first seeds of this little community in British Columbia, I learned, had been sewn 200 years ago in the mind of a New York fraudster.
As skeptics, we know that Joseph Smith was nothing more than a con man. His deceptions began in the 1820s in New York. Smith convinced his marks that he had what he called seer stones that could indicate where to find precious metals beneath the ground. For a fee, of course. People referred to Joseph Smith as the Glass Looker while he roped them into his divining services. It wasn't long before his customers became irate at the lack of results. The outrage led to his arrest. His accusers had him charged with being a disorderly person and an imposter. Joseph Smith was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine.
Again, in 1830, Joseph Smith faced arrest for being a disorderly person. In Ohio, Smith drew more charges, this time of bank fraud, between 1831 and 1838. After he fled Ohio, he racked up another banking fraud charge in Missouri.
There is not much else to conclude, other than the fact that the man was a charlatan. We can be reasonably sure of this. You'd think after the second or third time facing charges of behaving fraudulently, the people around Joseph Smith would begin to doubt the claims he made. As we know, that's not what happened. Instead, a religion arose based upon this con's unsubstantiated claims. The fact that polygamy was being forced upon him by a sword-wielding angel sent by God was just one of these wild assertions.
Mormonism was borne of the very same seer stones that had gotten Joseph in trouble in New York. It was September 1823 when he claimed to have first laid eyes on the Golden Plates that would later become the Book of Mormon. The angel Moroni appeared to the prophet and led him to the buried plates' location, close to his home in New York. Each year after that, Joseph made the trek to view the tablets until the fourth year, when he could finally retrieve them for translation. He brought them home wrapped in fabric, forbidden to let anyone else see them. The plates had been engraved with some form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and required a seer stone to translate. What luck that they had fallen into the hands of the one man in New York who happened to know how to use a seer stone. After three years of work, the Book of Mormon was ready, and the angel Moroni requested his golden plates back. Smith obliged, leaving them alongside a sword and a breastplate inside a cave in Hill Cumorah, or Mormon Hill, in Manchester, New York.
If this sounds like a wild tale to you, you're not alone. Most of Smith's neighbours rejected his claims and came down hard on Smith and his followers. Recalling his previous run-in with the law, they saw this as just another scam and ran the newly formed Church of Christ, its prophet and his wife, Emma, out of town. Persecution would be a recurring problem for the early LDS church. Ultimately, the tensions would culminate with Joseph Smith's murder at the hands of an angry mob in Illinois.
Before the conman died, though, it would seem that any time Smith had a problem, the angel Moroni would appear to him with the perfect solution. During the first year of transcribing the plates, the prophet discovered he was working with a skeptical scribe. When the scribe finally lost the manuscript they had already spent a year recording, Moroni appeared and punished Smith by taking the plates. As soon as Smith had a new, devoted scribe, Smith was again visited by the angel and gifted the plates once more. When the book was finally finished, the angel paid yet another visit, requesting the plates' return once again. Of course, this relieved Smith of the pressure to produce the plates to back up his claims.
And when the chosen one found himself unable to resist the beauty of one Miss Fanny Alger, wouldn't you know it, Moroni came to visit yet again. This time, though, the angel sent by God came wielding a sword and threatening bloody murder should Joseph not partake in polygamy.
And so, you see, the poor boy had to. At least, that's how he explained it to his disapproving wife. In the time between Moroni revealing the principle of plural marriage and the day he died, Mr. Smith took an additional 30-plus wives, much to Emma's dismay.
When Brigham Young took the reigns of the young church after Smith's death, he, too, carried on the principle of plural marriage, taking on 55 wives of his own. He led the Latter-Day Saints on the infamous wagon train to establish Utah so they could stay far away from the persecution of skeptics. Polygamy would become accepted as an official revelation from God, and it was commonplace in the early days of the Latter-Day Saints.
Despite their departure and the distance they put between the rest of America and themselves, the Saints continued to clash with the U.S. government. The practice of polygamy seemed to be at the heart of the issue. The run-ins were many and could get bloody and murderous and eventually erupted into war. The Utah Mormon war broke out in 1857 and lasted just over a year, ending with Utah's occupation by the United States Army. Brigham Young found himself having to resign as Governor of Utah, and a non-Mormon was quickly appointed in his place. Young died shortly afterward. Despite this, the struggle continued between the LDS church and American society over plural marriage. Charges were laid against men who took part in the practice, and precedents were set in the courts. Religious freedom, it was determined, was not a valid defence. It all came to an abrupt head in 1890 when the United States government resorted to disincorporation of the church and seizure of all of its property. These actions left the saints with no other option. They had to disavow polygamy.
Wilford Woodruff, who had replaced Brigham Young as the church leader and had up to nine wives of his own, took a hard stand against the principle of plural marriage, citing a timely revelation from God. Of course, you could keep the wives you had collected until this point, but one was not to accumulate any more. Miraculously, Moroni did not return with his sword to disembowel these heretics as he had once promised Joseph Smith he would do if the Saints didn't partake in plural marriage.
This new stance on polygamy seemed to work. The United States government and the church leadership finally seemed able to make nice. It was so effective that Utah was admitted into the union as a state shortly after that. Things were going so well for Utah that in 1904, the church again took a public stand against polygamy and began excommunicating those who practiced it. This position enraged those who would eventually form the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), as did the consequent ex-communication of John W. Taylor, the son of John Taylor. John Taylor had been the third president of the LDS Church who, in 1886, is reported to have received a revelation from God. This revelation given to Mr. Taylor, who had eight wives himself, reinforces the revelation received by Joseph Smith: plural marriage is a prescribed principle of Mormon life. It was handed down to John Taylor just four years before the LDS Church denounced polygamy. Of course, the Saints who accepted the revelation of 1886 felt that the LDS church was acting outside of God's law and found fit to settle elsewhere, forming their own church. And thus, the FLDS splinter was born.
The polygamists took their wives and settled in what was called Short Creek. Located on the Utah/Arizona border, the town would become the center of the FLDS church and eventually be known as the Twin Cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. This splinter group of fundamentalists had a rocky road ahead of them filled with legal fights, raids, arrests and leadership turmoil. In 1953, the Arizona National Guard carried out the largest mass-arrest of accused polygamists in the nation's history. It wasn't received well by the American public as they learned that every community member had been taken, including the children.
In the aftermath, the U.S. government took a step back from their hard stance against this sect, and things were relatively peaceful for the FLDS, even as the infamous Rulon Jeffs took control. In 1986, Jeffs became the president of the FLDS church. Known to his followers as Uncle Rulon, he is said to have had 75 wives in his lifetime. Through one of these unions, Jeffs fathered the current president of the church, Warren Jeffs. Warren leads his congregation today from a cell in the Louis C. Powledge Unit in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where he's serving life plus 20 years for sexual assault, but that's not why we're here.
We're here because all of this colourful history, all the tall tales and revelation, all the children and all these sister-wives led us to Bountiful, British Columbia, the idyllic village at the base of the Skimmerhorn Mountains, not too far from where I type this.
You see, amidst the turmoil in Colorado City and the constant legal harassment over their polygamist lifestyle, FLDS member Harold Blackmore wanted someplace a little more out of the way to settle down. He wanted to be away from the prying eyes of American law, free to take as many celestial wives as the good Lord would provide for him. So, just a few years before the tensions bubbled over with the Short Creek Raid, Harold went to Canada, purchased a plot of land in B.C. and moved his family there.
Currently, the population of Bountiful is said to be around 1000 people. A harrowing number when you consider that a vast majority of these residents descended from just six men within a few generations. One need only search for an ex-FLDS member on Facebook and glance at their friend list to see evidence of this. Nothing but Blackmores and Chatwins, Steeds and Olers, Palmers and Jessops. The FLDS church is so intermarried and incestuous that it caused a cluster of Fumarase Deficiency cases. Fumarase Deficiency is a congenital disability that sees sufferers with missing parts of their brain, extremely low I.Q. and an inability to remain upright either sitting or standing without some form of assistance. Before the cluster of 20 Fumarase Deficiency cases was identified in Colorado City and Hildale, there had only been 13 known cases worldwide. There are unconfirmed reports that alongside the cottage where Bountiful's women give birth lies a baby graveyard containing the bodies of infants born with Fumarase Deficiency.
Debbie Palmer was once a resident of Bountiful, BC. She was born and raised there and, at fifteen years of age, was married off to the 57-year-old then-leader of Bountiful, Ray Blackmore, who was also Debbie's step-grandfather. Ray had taken control of Bountiful out of the hands of his uncle Harold Blackmore back in 1953. Six mothers had raised Debbie, who had 46 siblings. Through two arranged marriages, Debbie became a stepmother, as a teenager, to 86 children. The current leader of Bountiful, BC, Winston Blackmore, is Debbie's uncle, stepson and step-grandson. When Debbie finally fled the community and became an outspoken activist against polygamy, she told the world that the FLDS based marriage on animal husbandry. Though Debbie passed this year, much of what outsiders know about this secretive community is thanks to her bravery.
In 1984, Ray Blackmore handed the leadership role in Bountiful down to his son, Winston Blackmore. Once a contender to take the FLDS church's reigns in the wake of Rulon Jeffs' death, Winston was a highly respected leader in his community. Ultimately, control of the church landed in the hands of Warren Jeffs, and Winston remained the leader of its faction in Bountiful.
With the help of 27 wives, Winston Blackmore has fathered nearly 150 children. Producing children is an essential tenet of FLDS life. Members of the church believe that the more offspring a man can turn out, the better his chances are of becoming a god in the afterlife himself. A fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint believes, as well, that if a man does not partake in the principle of plural marriage, he cannot become a god and will burn in Hell for all eternity. Women will also find themselves hellbound should they ever disobey a man. In fact, women in the FLDS church can only reach Heaven as a man's plus-one. That is to say, a lady has to be invited to paradise by her fella. These beliefs all stem from Genesis 1:28:
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
Of course, members of the FLDS church find themselves in a much broader context once they step outside their sheltered communities. In Bountiful, that context is Canadian society in which the expectation is to obey Canadian law.
According to the Canadian Criminal Code:
Every person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years or is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction who
(a) practises or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practise or enter into any form of polygamy or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage; or
(b) celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship mentioned in paragraph (a).
There is little doubt that the lifestyle practiced by Winston Blackmore and his flock violates the Canadian criminal code. In 1991, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) wrapped up an investigation into the practice of polygamy in Bountiful. They recommended that charges be laid against Blackmore and another community leader, Damon Oler.
Canada also has the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, though, which states that freedom of religion is a fundamental right belonging to all Canadians. In 1992, the attorney general of British Columbia refused to lay charges against Blackmore and Oler, his reason being that the polygamy section of the Canadian Criminal Code violates that fundamental right to religious freedom.
The objection has never been the practice of polygamy itself. If it could be demonstrated that all participants in a polygamist relationship were of age and gave informed consent, there wouldn't be as much opposition to it. What we tend to see, however, is the trafficking and commodification of young girls who cannot legally give consent and who have been indoctrinated with threats of Hell, even if they could. What you have are young women who have no idea what lies beyond their inbred community who, if ever given a choice at all, are making those decisions under great duress. They face threats of ex-communication, the loss of everything they have ever known. They face the risk of banishment and finding themselves in a world they have never lived in with the education of a 7-year-old. They have been told their entire lives that they are nothing without a man, that they will burn in Hell without a man and face eternal torture if they don't share that man with other wives. It is hardly a choice. You cannot consider a woman from a community like this able to give reasoned consent to plural marriage.
Polygamy, as the FLDS church practices it, is more accurately referred to as polygyny because a woman never takes multiple husbands. It is always the other way around. It leaves many to wonder how they manage to keep the supply of girls high enough to assign various wives to each patriarch. The heartbreaking answer is twofold. First, they regularly practice the expulsion of teen boys from the community, and second, of course, is human trafficking. Bountiful routinely imports American girls from Colorado City for marriage.
There is no denying that, at its core, the FLDS practice of polygyny is about the subjugation of women. It is about commanding their submission, their obedience. These fundamentalists frequently marry children, which ties polygyny in with child abuse. Joseph Smith married girls as young as 14. Brigham Young's youngest was 15. Rulon Jeffs had wives as young as 14. Warren Jeffs married a 12-year-old, a crime for which he is currently serving time.
Right here in BC, Winston Blackmore has admitted to marrying four girls at the age of fourteen. There is no question: Winston Blackmore is a child abuser.
It all went too far, Winston claimed, when Warren Jeffs commanded him to take part in the execution of a 16-year-old girl who had fled to escape her impending marriage. Jeffs acted with haste when he excommunicated Blackmore, causing a deep rift in the community of Bountiful. Where there was once just one church and a single school, there now stood two of each. The FLDS church members shunned the "wicked apostates" who chose a path with Blackmore. Though it has never been confirmed that Jeffs ordered a girl's execution, the rift in Bountiful remains to this day. James Oler became the FLDS bishop in the community, while Blackmore has incorporated his own church, the Church of Jesus Christ (Original Doctrine) Inc.
In 2012, the school that educated the FLDS side of the divide suddenly closed with no explanation. However, Mormon Hills, the school that the Blackmore clan sends their kids to, remains open and receives $700,000 in funding from the British Columbian government despite it not going any higher than grade 10.
Carol Anderson is Winston's sister and a former resident of Bountiful. She got out with her mother as a child. Carol is now an immigration officer at the Idaho border with Canada and often turns away women sent to Canada for marriage by the FLDS in Colorado City. Just recently, Winston asked her to come back and help educate his wives so they can go out and earn a salary.
Of course, having been given the go-ahead to teach them whatever she needed to, she said yes.
The Bountiful tapestry had begun to unravel long before this, however. In 2004, Debbie Palmer contacted the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and filed a complaint. Alongside her were other survivors of plural marriage in Bountiful. Rumblings were starting to be heard, and Winston Blackmore became uneasy. To fight back, Blackmore held a "summit on polygamy," where he explained that his people's lifestyle is practised under religious freedom, and any attack on it is persecution. At the summit, he admitted to marrying 14-year-olds. This summit didn't affect how the law viewed Bountiful because, in 2005, British Columbia saw a new attorney general. Wally Oppal was sworn in and made clear that he felt what was going on in Bountiful was "intolerable." Oppal quickly sought a special prosecutor's advice in every effort to crack down on the polygamist sect.
Through technical errors, more back and forth on the topic of religious freedom and eons of red tape, the case was bounced around courtroom after courtroom until finally, in 2017, Winston Blackmore was found guilty of polygamy, and so was James Oler. In an infuriating end, they each got away with just a few months of house arrest.
Despite how deeply the British Columbian courts have let down the girls of Bountiful, BC, there seems to be a brighter future for them. With age, Blackmore appears to have relaxed his position on many things. He seems to be okay with their choice to leave Bountiful and his church and their desire to feel welcomed back home. He has relaxed their dress code and seems to value education now. He has brought his sister back to teach the women in his church lessons from the secular world.
It is not as desperate as it once was. There is hope in Bountiful, now, and her name is Carol Anderson. She comes every day to teach the women and girls science and math, reading and writing and history.
And we all know what happens when women get an education.
Now that I know a little more about Bountiful, I have a new explanation for why the streets were deserted the day we drove through. I like to think it was because the women and girls were all gathered around Carol learning about evolution and the big bang about Canada's history and their own rights as an autonomous human being. I like to think it was because things in Bountiful are going to change soon.