The Secret Lives of Saints

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-01-06
  • Publisher: Vintage Canada
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The Secret Lives of Saintspaints a troubling portrait of an extreme religious sect. These zealous believers impose severe and often violent restrictions on women, deprive children of education and opt instead to school them in the tenets of their faith, defy the law and move freely and secretly over international borders. They punish dissent with violence and even death. No, this sect is not the Taliban, but North America's fundamentalist Mormons. From its very beginning, the Mormon church, an offshoot of Christianity, found itself on the margins of both convention and the law. In addition to their unorthodox interpretation of the more mainstream Christian denominations, the Mormons embraced one tenet in particular that others found hard to accept: the idea that only by engaging in polygamous marriage could a man enter the highest realms of the kingdom of heaven. In 1890, under immense pressure from the federal government in the United States, the Mormons agreed to renounce polygamy in return for the right to the status of statehood in Utah, where they had settled. Since then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has officially taken the position that plural marriage is unlawful and is not to be pursued. However, colonies of renegade fundamentalist Mormons have continued to practise polygamy and thrive to this day in Canada and the United States, despite the fact that they are flouting the law. In the U.S., the "prophet" Warren Jeffs made headlines when, having been placed on the list of America's Most Wanted, he was apprehended in 2006 and was convicted as an accomplice to rape. While his acolytes and subjects lived in poverty, Jeffs was driving around in a luxury SUV when state troopers pulled him over. The story is much the same here in Canada, where the "bishop" of a fundamentalist sect in Bountiful, B.C., Winston Blackmore, heads up a multi-million dollar group of companies and flies on private jets while his supporters and employees live hard-scrabble lives and tithe their meager earnings to the church. Daphne Bramham explores the history and ideas of this surprisingly resilient and insular society, asking the questions that surround its continued existence and telling the stories of the men and women whose lives are so entwined with it both the leaders and the victims. How can it be that a group can live in open defiance of the law for over 100 years, when its leaders appear on thePhil Donohue Showand CNN and boast of their practices, which include marriage to girls well below the legal age of consent? How do their schools receive government funding when they teach racism and indoctrinate pupils into the belief that women are naturally subordinate to men? How do fundamentalist Mormon businesses escape prosecution for their regular violations of child labour laws? How does the sect manage to straddle the CanadaU.S. border so effortlessly, with American girls living as plural wives in Canada without actually immigrating and Canadian girls shipped off to the U.S. the same way? These are pointed questions, and a great deal depends on the answers. By delving into the life stories of the men and women who make up the ranks of the fundamentalist Mormons or "Saints" as they call themselves Bramham makes it clear that the arguments swirling around the legality of what goes on in Bountiful are anything but abstract. She tells the stories of young girls forced into "marriages" with men old enough to be their grandfathers and installed in households more like motels than homes, with each wife quartered separately and rigorously scheduled to have regular intercourse with her husband. She takes us into the life of a young girl forced into a "marriage" with such complex genealogical implications that she became her own step-grandmother. And it is not just the

Author Biography

Daphne Bramham has been a columnist at the Vancouver Sun since 2000 and has won numerous awards for her writing, including a National Newspaper Award. She was named Commentator of the Year by the Jack Webster Foundation in 2005 and was honoured by the non-profit group Beyond Borders for a series of columns on the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C.

From the Hardcover edition.




The community of Bountiful has been Canada’s dirty secret for more than sixty years. Tucked away in the southeastern corner of British Columbia, it’s out of sight and out of mind. As its founders had hoped in the mid-1940s, when they chose this remote location to raise their polygamous families, the neighbours don’t really mind. They’ve got secrets of their own. So, they don’t ask and the folks in Bountiful don’t tell what really goes on out there under the cliffs of the Skimmerhorn Mountains.

Bountiful, B.C., is the polygamy capital of Canada. You won’t find it on any map because it’s a made-up name. The official name of the place you’re looking for is Lister, but even with a detailed map of the Kootenay region, you’ll have to search hard to find it. Lister was founded by First World War veterans, who, as they sailed home from Europe, dreamed of setting up a co­operative fruit farm. But there wasn’t enough water and the land wasn’t suitable for fruit trees. So, by 1923, their utopia in tatters, veterans began drifting away.

The closest town of any size is Creston – population 5,201 at last count. At the Creston Museum, you’ll learn that this is a region with a history rich in dreamers, ne’er­do­wells, rounders, speculators, prospectors, hermits, murderers and even religious terrorists who emigrated from Russia.

It’s little more than a ten­minute drive from Creston to the cluster of homes, schools, barns and trailers that Blackmore renamed Bountiful. According to the Book of Mormon, that’s what an apocryphal character, Nephi, named North America when he arrived by sea from the Holy Land around 600 BC. The Mormons – mainstream and fundamentalist – believe that North America’s aboriginal people are descendants of Nephi’s brother, Laman. The Lamanites, as Mormons call native Indians, denied Christ, fell in league with the Devil and killed Nephi’s descendants. Needless to say, Mormons had little time for Lamanites, until recently, when the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter­day Saints began to view American Indians as an opportunity for expansion.

The folks at the Creston Tourist Information office will give you directions to Bountiful, but they may do so grudgingly. The good burghers of Creston aren’t happy that their pretty little town shares the infamy that comes with having twelve hundred polygamists living nearby. They’d prefer that people associate Creston with apples or cherries, or the local beer that’s “brewed right in the Kootenays,” as the company’s slogan says. Or that Creston be thought of as a nice place to retire. If Creston has to be known for something, they’d rather it was for the first-rate marijuana – the “B.C. bud” that’s grown only semi­surreptitiously throughout the lush valley – than polygamy.

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously told Canadians that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Most people have forgotten that he said it during debates over a massive and controversial rewriting of the Criminal Code in 1967 that decriminalized “homosexual acts.” A few years later, his government again stepped back from the private realm of sexual relations and legalized abortion. Finally, Trudeau tried – with a new Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – to create a freer society where all men, women and children would have more choices open to them. Yet now Canadians – already burdened with the national characteristic of politeness – often repeat Trudeau’s quote to justify not poking into other people’s bedrooms even if it means ignoring abuse.

Certainly that’s what Creston̵

Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect by Daphne Bramham
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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