CRESTON, BC -- In what must have been the biggest public relations event in the history of Creston, the normally secretive polygamous community of Bountiful BC opened its doors and presented a well orchestrated media blitz designed to "create bridges" between themselves and the rest of Canada.
It could have been a marketing nightmare. After all, front and centre stood Winston Blackmore, the bishop of the sect who has been accused of child trafficking and pedophilia. Confident to the point of cockiness, at one point he joked about writing "The Winston Blackmore guide to women…after all who knows them better than I do?" And then he added, "Of course all the pages would be blank."
On Thursday morning, the results were in, evident on the front pages of various newspapers read in B.C. and beyond. The Globe and Mail had no coverage, but The National Post headline read: "BC Girl, 14, Defends Home Town Polygamist Sect" and The Province was equally soft-gloved: "It's Second Nature to Us: Kids at Bountiful Commune Discuss Their Way of Life." Readers of the Sun were greeted by Blackmore's laughing face dominating the front page, the caption conveying his promise to "dispel the myths about polygamy." You had to turn to Daphne Bramham's column inside to find a clearly skeptical take.
On Tuesday evening, you could definitely see the planning that had gone into the event. There were tables laden with home-baked goodies, a full turnout of media, a small collection of what could be described as "normal looking" Bountiful teens who were ready and willing to talk, and nine well-educated and dedicated women (six of whom were wives of Winston Blackmore), who wanted us to know that they were happy and content with their lifestyle choice.
There was a powerpoint presentation on the many merits of living in a community with plural families. They had even brought in a mediator from the US, Mary Bachelor, a slick and modern looking woman in a burgundy suite who is a member of "Principal Voices of Polygamy", a group whose purpose is to build bridges between North America's polygamous communities, and the rest of the population.
The evening very much carried with it a plea for tolerance and understanding. Numerous allusions were made to being a distinct "culture", and comparisons were made to the legalization of gay rights in Canada. Many of the wives had genuinely heartrending stories of the ways in which they feel persecuted, or had been attacked because of prejudice for who they are.
One young woman told of working at a local food store, and having a man come up to her when she was hugely pregnant, and express his sympathy that the men in her community would treat her like livestock. "That (girl you read about in the press) is not me. I am not a cow in a stall. I do not have any children that I do not want!"
'Silent no more!'
Blackmore attacked The Sun's Bramham and the rest of the media. One of the wives claimed a rise in attacks on members of the community (both physical and verbal), since all the "negative press" had come out.
"Why can't (the media) empower us and defend our rights and freedoms? Sometimes when people think they are helping us, they are really hurting us."
"We are what we are," stated Roger Palmer, an older gentleman who was born into the community, "How can we be expected to change who we are?"
"So far all we need protection from is from the prejudice that we face." Declared one of the wives, "When you are persecuting a person, or group of people, you lose your power to help them."
"Silence can not be misquoted, but it can be misunderstood. Going through this experience of being publicly ridiculed has only given me the courage to come forth and tell the truth. We will be silent no more!" Exclaimed another, to a thunderous round of applause.
But truth is a slippery fish to grab onto.
This event was a direct response to the publication of "a certain book", as it was referred to by several of the speakers. Co-written by a former daughter and wife of the community, Debbie Palmer, Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy is touted as a "harrowing expose about surviving a polygamous cult." There are many well-documented stories of "survivors' of the community who clearly felt that the community did not provide "life long support" a "safe environment for children", or that it "made women more independent" as was listed in the evening's power point presentation.
'Master of public relations'
"I found the evening informative" said the Mayor of Creston, Joe Snopek. In particular, Mayor Snopek found useful the community's income tax information and rebuttal to allegations that they are misusing the Child Tax Credit, as that had been a major bone of contention for Creston residents. He said that he also found plausible Winston Blackmore's statement that there is no child trafficking.
"Of course," Mayor Snopek added, "Winston is a master of public relations. I believe he is the one that has kept the Bountiful profile low key all these years."
"Really, this is a non-issue for Creston itself because Bountiful is not a part of the region. This is a charter issue."
Audrey Vance has lived in Creston for over 60 years, and is the founder of Altering Destiny Through Education, an organization that seeks to implement the recommendations outlined by some of the ex-wives in a report that was put together in April of 1993, in particular with regards to the educational system in Bountiful.
"The issue," Vance said, "is not about whether or not you believe in polygamy. It is about looking at when people come to Canada from other countries, should the Canadian law come before their own? Polygamy is illegal in Canada. Either the government needs to address this situation, or change the law."
There is no doubt from listening to the wives that evening that the members of the community have felt persecution. There is no doubt that some members of the community are happy with their "lifestyle choice".
There is no doubt that that members have, in the past, married girls younger than 16 (as Winston publicly admitted himself to having done, though he now vows to draw the line at age 18).
There is also no doubt that what is happening in Bountiful is illegal under the laws of Canada. Does a community's right to religious freedoms trump the rights of women and children, and basic human rights as decided under Canada's laws? What remains in doubt is how - and when - the government is going to respond.
Amanda Euringer is a Vancouver-based writer who spends much of her time in the Creston region. She wrote about Bountiful for The Tyee here.