The polygamous community of Bountiful is located on the outskirts of the small town of Creston, British Columbia. The community, comprised of just over a thousand people, is tucked away in the Creston Valley under the shadow of the towering East Kootenay Mountains close to the US border.
It is a secluded community where plural marriage is not only at the centre of the community's religious beliefs but it is a way of life. It's a place where some men have close to 30 wives and father up to 80 children and where teenage girls are married to men old enough to be their grandfathers. They believe that the more children a man produces, the better his chances of entering the celestial kingdom of God, finding salvation and possibly becoming a God himself.
It's home to Winston Blackmore - 'The Bishop of Bountiful'. He was born and raised into the community and continues to be most powerful man in Bountiful. His first wife Jane , says he has 26 wives and some 80 children. The men who head up the families in Bountiful make the decisions and demand that the women be demure, unobtrusive and obedient. Men rule and women are never to question their power over them.
This polygamist community, which is part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has lived in British Columbia for well over fifty years. Its history can be traced back to the Mormon community in Utah. When the official Mormon Church banned polygamy in 1890, authorities stepped in and began to round up and jail those who openly defied the edict. A splinter group wanting to practice polygamy fled into the desert and established a settlement that came to be called Colorado City on the Utah/Arizona border. Another group traveled up to Canada and set up a polygamist community near the present day town of Cardston, Alberta. In Canada, Ottawa declared polygamy a criminal offence and in time their lifestyle began to disappear.
But shortly after the Second World War, a small group of polygamist diehards left Cardston determined to set up their own community in British Columbia. They bought property and settled in a remote valley near the town of Creston close to the US border. Their community would come to be known as Bountiful and it quickly established social and family ties with the main polygamous community of Fundamentalist Mormons based in Colorado City, Arizona.
Today Colorado City with it's population of 10,000 has become the North American home of polygamy. Ron Barton, a seasoned cop with the Utah State Attorney's Office was surprised at what he found when investigating child abuse and incest in polygamous communities in the US.
Ron Barton: If a man, an older man seduces a 13-year-old girl, he doesn't commit, in his own mind he doesn't commit sexual abuse on that girl. Once he's successful in having intercourse with her, then in his own mind he views himself as married. Hana Gartner: IF NO ONE COMES FORWARD TO COMPLAIN BARTON HAS NO CASE. IF IT'S NOT BOTHERING ANYBODY-- WHY DON'T WE JUST MIND OUT OWN BUSINESS?
Ron Barton: Well, that's been the attitude for many years in Utah and I think in other states where fundamentalists live is that this is a victimless crime. They're not bothering anybody. Nobody is being injured and that's simply not true. We establish laws to protect young women and we can't have a second standard for girls that grow up in Colorado City, a lesser standard and say that's fair.
Within the last decade there has been a remarkable growth in the populations of the polygamous communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Bountiful, British Columbia. It has resulted in a growing influx of young women moving from the US community to Bountiful in an effort to establish closer ties with Winston Blackmore and the Canadian group.
This flow of young women back and forth across the border has raised concerns for Carol Anderson who works as an immigration officer on the Idaho/BC border. She's turned many of these American girls away because she knew they were going to Bountiful for the express purpose of marriage.
Carol Anderson: I've refused admission to them because I didn't think they were visitors. I've refused admission because I felt they were coming here to get married. There is no class under Canada's Immigration law by which they can be sponsored in as a plural spouse. The law prohibits it.
Although it's illegal to have multiple wives in Canada so far nobody in Bountiful has been prosecuted for polygamy. In fact, nine years ago 3 Colorado girls living in Bountiful were denied immigrant status. They appealed the decision to Ottawa on humanitarian grounds and won. Now they are landed immigrants entitled to a full range of benefits like social assistance, complete health care and fully eligible for a child tax credit.
Visiting Bountiful is like going back in time. Many young women are pregnant with toddlers in tow. Most of these women are married in the eyes of the religion - but not under the law.
In Canada children under 16 need their parents permission and a judge's signature to get married. And when it comes to sex, a child between the age of 12 and 14 is permitted to have sex but their partner must be less than two years older.
Jane Blackmore , Winston's 1st wife claims that the daughters in Bountiful are getting married - and having babies - as early as 14 and 15, something Winston Blackmore quickly denies.
The community of Creston just a few miles down the road from Bountiful has turned a blind eye toward the polygamous community living on it's doorstep. They've been around so long that they've become part of the landscape says the mayor Don Leben. Don Leben:They contribute to our community, they run businesses, they purchase supplies, they purchase equipment, they purchase services in our town. It's like any other individual...People, I think have adopted the live and let live attitude - you don't interfere with my pursuit of happiness, I won't interfere with yours.
Most of the 5,000 people living in Creston feel the same says John Kettle a local politician who runs the city dump.
John Kettle: If that were a Sikh community, if that were a Chinese community, a Native community, or a homosexual community, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation. .You know, I'm not a bible thumper and I'm not a very good Christian. I drink, smoke and I drink Kokanee beer brewed here in Creston by the way, every week. But I'll tell you what. They live their religion and I respect that. I hope more people do. You are going to have a hard time finding anybody in this valley that knows them that will say anything derogatory about them, because they're good people.
Another reason may have to do with money. The community of Bountiful has kept the town's economy in high gear says Carol Anderson , Winston Blackmore's half-sister.
Carol Anderson: They are a major economic force and if you're in a capitalistic society that the bottom line is business - the bottom line is - Don't bother Bountiful because they are good business.