VANCOUVER -- Utah's chief law officer is heading to British Columbia
next week to discuss how to stop young women facing pressure within
their church from entering into polygamous marriages in the religious
community of Bountiful, B.C.
Attorney-General Mark Shurtleff of Utah requested the meeting with his
B.C. counterpart, Wally Oppal, and other legal and advocacy groups to
plan how the two jurisdictions can better monitor exchanges between
the communities, both of which practise polygamy.
Utah has between 30,000 and 50,000 polygamists, while B.C. has just a
fraction of that number.
The Creston valley in southeastern B.C. is home to the polygamous
community of Bountiful, where about 1,000 residents once belonged to
the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The
residents are descendents from a breakaway sect that came north in the
Since 1988, Utah's attorney-general has prosecuted five cases,
charging polygamists with crimes ranging from bigamy to unlawful
sexual conduct with a minor.
Although polygamy is illegal in Canada, there have been no similar
prosecutions in B.C. There is now a growing pressure to act, Mr. Oppal
The difficulty is in getting evidence about actual crimes within the
community. An RCMP report investigating allegations of sexual
exploitation and child abuse in Bountiful is expected within weeks.
"We can't do anything unless we have evidence, and evidence is a
person who is prepared to go into a courtroom and testify," Mr. Oppal
With increased public scrutiny in recent years, that evidence is
mounting as more women leave the polygamous community and speak out.
Some children from Bountiful are attending public elementary school
for the first time, eschewing the traditional home-based or Mormon
Creston resident Deb Quesnel, a member of the advocate group Altering
Destiny Through Education, said she is hopeful Mr. Shurtleff can
persuade Mr. Oppal to press charges.
"It's just absurd that we continue to allow this to happen," Ms.
Quesnel said yesterday. "For the first time ever, we are seeing a
glimmer of hope that the government is finally going to get tough on
this and protect these women and children."
Former provincial cabinet minister Corky Evans, who represented the
area in the 1990s and is the current MLA, said he has known people who
have lived in Bountiful and still are residents of the polygamous
community who just want to be left alone. But in recent years, more
residents are becoming increasingly aware of problems in the
tight-knit commune of Bountiful, he said.
Potential brides, including teenagers, originally from the United
States, are entering into polygamous marriage under pressure from
older members in the religious group, Mr. Evans said. Another issue,
he said, is the ejection of young men from the community, in part to
avoid competing for young wives with older leaders in the community.
"We should have even more of these meetings, between the MLAs and the
MPs and school board trustees here and from the U.S. so we can come up
finally with something," Mr. Evans said. "After many years, the time
has come for action."
One of the groups that will be meeting with Mr. Shurtleff to discuss
the issue is the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, a
non-profit group that works to ensure legal equality of women.
Executive director Alison Brewin said there are now issues of whether
polygamy is guaranteed as a Charter right. Federal Justice Minister
Irwin Cotler has indicated that he believes it is not a Charter right;
Mr. Oppal has also expressed the belief that the issue is at least
In B.C. and Canada, the pressure has never been greater to prosecute
polygamists, Ms. Brewin said. In Utah, Mr. Shurtleff is also under
pressure because of uncertainty over the leadership of the church.
This year, Warren Jeffs, president and prophet of the Fundamentalist
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disappeared just before
he was to be indicted in June by an Arizona grand jury on charges of
sexual misconduct with a minor.
Mr. Jeffs's father, Rulon, the last prophet, expelled Bountiful leader
Winston Blackmore, and divisions were set between followers of both
"The fear for the attorneys-general in Utah and here is that Blackmore
could end up with his own group," Ms. Brewin said. "If they come down
hard on them in Utah and we don't do a thing here, it defeats what
they're doing in the U.S."