The Women Changing Canada's Most Infamous Polygamist Colony from the Inside
Bountiful, British Columbia, has been in the news for an ongoing child trafficking trial, but the fundamentalist Mormon settlement is also home to a small group of women leaders who defy stereotypes.
In many ways, the story of Bountiful has remained the same for decades.
A fundamentalist sect of Mormons settled in southeastern British Columbia during renowned ghost-consulter Mackenzie King's third stint as prime minister. Since then, the polygamist colony is known to have closed itself off from the world around it, arranged cross-border marriages for girls as young as 12, treated sisterwives like baby factories, and denied kids agency and education—all while refusing to update their personal style past the 19th century.
Canadian journalists have gone so far as to compare the group to the Taliban, and on Monday, Crown prosecutors will deliver closing arguments in a high-profile child trafficking case against one Bountiful leader and two parents. James Oler, Brandon James Blackmore, and Emily Blackmore are accused of taking 13- and 15-year-old girls to Nevada in 2004 to be married and exploited for sexual purposes. The trial marks the first time parents have been held criminally responsible for the group's alleged long-running "child bride pipeline."
No matter which way media attempt to tell this story, there is only one way we understand Bountiful women to be: quiet, obedient, uneducated, covered from head to toe in monochrome pioneer dresses, with hair laced in poofy French braids. Outsiders assume they submit to total brainwashing, control, and even abuse before they're old enough to drive.
This may be how many women and girls continue to live in Bountiful and across dozens of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) settlements across North America—but it isn't what caught the eye of photographer Jackie Dives. "I thought it would be more sombre, ritualistic, and dull," she told VICE. "But it was colorful and beautiful."
Visiting on assignment earlier this year, Dives was surprised to meet a group of women who were pushing into leadership positions in the colony's school and land trust, working in offices and hospitals in nearby towns, and unafraid to down a glass of wine or five wearing skinny jeans and oversize sweaters. They were outspoken and educated, and claimed to be bolstering education opportunities and preaching democratic principles within the deeply religious compound.
"There was a time when our school was not a certified school," Mary Jayne Blackmore, daughter of charged polygamist leader Winston Blackmore, said over drinks. Bountiful's independent school, where Mary Jayne pushed for provincial accreditation, will receive more than a half million in government funding this year. "That was one thing that weighed heavily on me at least, because if kids aren't having education and an opportunity, that is limiting them."
The Bountiful women VICE spoke to were all excommunicated from the followers of now-convicted pedophile prophet Warren Jeffs more than a decade ago (a traumatic rift dubbed "the split"), and now follow a less fundamental path. In some cases, that's meant divorcing their husbands and steering their own children away from the sect's marriage-centric culture. Though they married early, none of the half-dozen women VICE spoke to identify as victims.
Depending on your perspective, these women are either reforming the reclusive community from the inside, or mounting a public relations front to deflect heat from their leader (and close relative) Winston Blackmore.
With polygamists now on trial in Canada, Dives looked into the day-to-day lives of these Bountiful women who appear to defy stereotypes. But she's also careful not to excuse serious allegations. "Winston is charged with polygamy, and there are three others charged with trafficking children," she told VICE. "That's in the courts right now."
"With this photo series, I'm not trying to say that's not a thing. This is just my take on what I experienced while I was up there. It's just a different part of what's happening up there—it's multifaceted, it's not just one thing happening."
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December 21, 2016: Two photos were removed due to privacy concerns.
- VICE Canada
- Vice Blog
- Sarah Berman
- Sarah Berman VICE
- religious cults
- child trafficking
- Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
- Jackie Dives
- Jackie Dives VICE
- Winston Blackmore
- James Oler
- Emily Blackmore
- Brandon James Blackmore
- Miriam Chatwin
- Mary Jayne Blackmore