The first plural wife from Bountiful, B.C., to testify at a landmark B.C. court case says she and her children have not endured abuse, that her husband supported her through her years of post-secondary education, and that young girls in her commune are no longer required to marry.
The woman, a mother of nine who is now in her 40s, was also the first witness from Bountiful to testify anonymously at the Vancouver hearings. Several women will appear this week via a video link from an adjacent courtroom, their faces hidden from view.
She said that in her case, she did decide to marry young, and four months before her 17th birthday became the second wife of a man she describes as a community elder. He was already married to her biological sister.
'There's so many people in mainstream society that make so many assumptions about us.' —Anonymous polygamous wife from Bountiful, B.C.
"I did not know him well, I knew he was in good standing in the church," the woman, whose identity is protected from publication, said Tuesday at the B.C. court case examining Canada's polygamy laws.
"[My father] told me, 'You do not have to marry him if you don't want to.' I felt good about him, and I married him. My sister wife and I have lived at times in the same home, we've lived in different homes. I feel that we are both very committed in having a good relationship with each other."
Bountiful, a commune of about 1,000 people in southeastern B.C., follows a form of fundamentalist Mormonism long since rejected by the mainstream church. The isolated commune has come under heavy scrutiny at the hearings, which were prompted by the failed prosecution of the community's two leaders on polygamy charges.
Grew up in polygamous family
The court has already heard from former residents of Bountiful and similar polygamous communities, who have told the court about forced marriages, physical and emotional abuse, and a culture that demands strict obedience from women and children.
In a calm voice, hesitating occasionally to collect her thoughts through heavy sighs, the woman offered a contradictory picture of life in the community, where she said girls can refuse marriages and are no longer married before the age of 18.
She grew up in a family that included her father's five wives and about 30 children. She said children are taught the importance of obedience, but women aren't forced to obey their husbands.
Children are encouraged to attend and finish school, she said, and some, like her, attend post-secondary institutions. She spent six years completing training in nursing, elderly care and midwifery.
The woman rejected claims that girls are forbidden to interact with or be alone with boys, although she acknowledged she was taught to see boys as "snakes" that are best avoided and not touched.
The woman said she strongly objected when, at the age of 15, one of her daughters wanted to marry a 19-year-old man. Her husband raised those concerns with the local bishop, she said, but in the end the teens were allowed to wed.
Regrets early motherhood
Her daughter has since left Bountiful, living with her husband in a monogamous marriage with two children, as has one of her stepsons.
Even though she agrees with the church policy that underage girls shouldn't be married, the woman said she has no regrets about becoming a plural wife at 16.
"I feel like my husband really supported me through my years of education and he really has been a life-long friend to me, as well as watched my children when I went to school," she said.
"As far as having children when I was that young, looking back, I would have waited longer."
When asked under cross-examination whether she considered her marriage "child abuse," she answered with a simple, "No."
The only negative she raised in her testimony was living with the stigma and constant threat of Canada's anti-polygamy law.
"I believe that there's so many people in mainstream society that make so many assumptions about us that we are treated with bias and prejudice, and that affects my everyday life — if I wanted to go anywhere and get any sort of counselling in mainstream society, I feel like I would not be accepted," she said.
The constitutional hearings were prompted by the failed prosecution of Bountiful leaders Winston Blackmore and James Oler, who were each charged in 2009 with practising polygamy. A judge later threw out the charges on technical legal grounds.
All of the anonymous witnesses are from Oler's side, which the court has heard is stricter than Blackmore's.
Blackmore is boycotting the hearings because he was denied government funding. Oler initially offered to testify, but later decided against appearing.