Bountiful book exposes ‘saints’

The Secret Lives of Saints, by Daphne Bramham
Reviewed by Janet Nicol

The Secret Lives of Saints (Daphne Bramham, Random House Canada, Toronto, 2008. 445 pp $32.95 cloth) reveals disturbing truths about a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Bountiful, a community of more than 1,200 people in south-eastern British Columbia. Author Daphne Bramham has frequently expounded on injustices committed toward its residents in her Vancouver Sun columns. Now her book offers the big picture, delivering a compelling story dominated with villains, victims, and apathetic observers.

Much of Bramham’s evidence of wrong-doings is based on testimonies of former residents. She also uses the words of Winston Blackmore, an expelled bishop who continues to lead a faction of sect members, to prove leadership at Bountiful is anything but saintly. Descriptions of similar activities of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in Utah, Arizona, and Texas are detailed. (The FLDS is not to be confused with mainstream Mormons who oppose multiple marriages.) Bramham repeatedly illustrates how British Columbians are reluctant to protest the Mormon sect’s harmful impact on its women and children, despite the fact polygamy has been illegal since 1890.

Two independent schools at Bountiful—funded by BC taxpayers to the tune of $800,000 annually—enroll an estimated 400 students. Citing annual government inspector reports, the author notes Bountiful Elementary and Secondary School (BESS) has operated in the past with only three out of ten teaching staff holding BC College of Teachers’ certifications.

Blackmore founded Mormon Hills in 2001 and named himself superintendent. But few students from either school graduate from Grade 12. Drop-out rates are high and occur early—girls leave to enter “assigned” marriages as young as 14, and boys, as early as Grade 8, to work in low-wage jobs. Many boys are also cast out of Bountiful by church elders to decrease the ratio of grooms to brides.

The schools profess to follow BC curriculum, yet Bramham argues subject content is distorted or ignored. Religious doctrine prevails on posters, exam questions, and video-taped songs and sermons. Domestic skills are emphasized for female students. A few “trusted” females are encouraged to become nurses, teachers, and midwives so the community can be self-sufficient. All classroom learners are kept insulated from, and in contempt of, the “outside” world.

Bramham compares these human rights violations to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. She asks: “How is it that two nations, so clear-sighted in recognizing human rights atrocities in other countries and so fearless in taking on tyrannical rulers on the other side of the world, have been so blind to the human rights violations committed against their own women and children?”

Fundamentalist Mormons first settled in the area in the late 1940s. Over the ensuing years, opportunities to take legal action occurred, Bramham observes, including in the 1990s. But provincial NDP Minister Penny Priddy was unable to convince her cabinet colleagues to lay charges against Bountiful’s leaders. “Bountiful is like a sleeping snake,” she told the author. “Everybody takes a stick and pokes at it once in a while.” Priddy cites apathy as the single biggest reason for government inaction.

Four years ago, the BC Teachers’ Federation joined the protest, delivering a petition of teachers’ signatures to the Liberal government. Meantime, BC Attorney General Wally Oppal ordered a two-year RCMP investigation and two independent inquiries. And now he has appointed special prosecutor Terrance Robertson to head a third investigation. Another key breakthrough came in November 2007, when FLDS “prophet” Warren Jeffs was tried and sentenced by an American court to 10 years in prison on two counts of rape as an accomplice. (Jeffs had assigned the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old male.)

Because of growing public condemnation, Blackmore may be loosening his hold on his multiple wives, children, and followers. Recently he hired three certified teachers at Mormon Hills and he is improving academic standards, according to Audrey Vance, a Creston resident and former school trustee. Vance is one of a dozen members of “Altering Destiny Through Education.”

“Last year 10 of Winston’s students graduated from Homelinks,” Vance said in a telephone interview. (Homelinks is a public education program in Creston.) Vance’s group supports education for Bountiful’s youth, believing learning can be a path out.

In a telephone interview, Bramham says sect elders only want their members to be “minimally educated.” They want the children to have the basics—reading, writing, and math,” she says. Beyond this, leaders discourage higher learning for young people because they are only going to face a life of domestic or manual work. “This also makes it harder to escape,” Bramham adds.

Bramham thinks the Independent School Act needs to be re-written. “Teachers need to meet the basic professional requirements,” she says, “and safeguards to the curriculum need to be added so inspectors have tools to maintain standards.”

But while the wheels of reform and investigation grind slowly, the leaders of Bountiful continue to assign child brides to older men and exploit or “throw away” boys. Airing the “secrets” of the saints, as Bramham does in this book, is a convincing and compassionate step toward change in our own backyard.

Re-printed from BC Teacher magazine, March, 2009.

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