B.C.: A Bastion of Bountifuls


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WHEN the famous American feminist Susan B. Anthony visited British Columbia in 1871, she was appalled at what she saw. The little city of Victoria was made up almost entirely of men, and many of them were impudently and quite happily engaged in "women's work."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2005 (6477 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEN the famous American feminist Susan B. Anthony visited British Columbia in 1871, she was appalled at what she saw. The little city of Victoria was made up almost entirely of men, and many of them were impudently and quite happily engaged in “women’s work.”

They were white, black, aboriginal, and Hawaiian. They belonged to book clubs and wrote affectionate poetry to one another. Where there were white women, as often as not, they were living in mixed-race, common-law relationships.

As University of Manitoba historian Adele Perry puts it, British Columbian society at the time “hovered dangerously at the precipice” of the social norms and ideas of the time. Bashing everybody into shape took a long time and a protracted campaign by an unseemly alliance of police officials, mainline Christian clerics, employers, journalists, judges, and English middle-class feminists.

That same alliance, reconfigured in a distinctly post-modern form, is now waging another protracted campaign against a very peculiar little town of about 800 people on the outskirts of Creston, in the East Kootenay mountains. The town is called Bountiful, and you could say that Bountiful hovers, very dangerously, at the precipice of contemporary norms and ideas.

Bountiful is at the centre of a gathering storm of allegations about racist schoolbooks, child-bride trafficking, and sexual abuse. At the moment, a special task force of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is busy in the town, looking into every cupboard, cellar and tree-fort for any evidence that supports these horrible charges.

Bountiful was founded almost 60 years ago by people determined to persist in an old Mormon heresy that obliges men to acquire at least three wives in order to be assured of a place in heaven. It is perfectly all right to regard this as nutbar theology, but it’s extremely unlikely that Canada’s antiquated anti-polygamy laws would survive a simple Charter of Rights challenge.

B.C.’s current Liberal government understands this. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association understands this, calling the polygamy hubbub “an unhelpful diversion.” The former New Democratic Party government understood this, way back in 1992.

As for the racist schoolbooks, B.C.’s education ministry looked into that two years ago, and reached the same not-guilty verdict that two independent reviews concluded after looking into the same charge in the early 1990s. So, don’t count on much happening about that.

Bountiful’s polygamy traditions are routinely alleged to provide cover for the criminal traffic in child brides, but it’s a hard case to make. In Canada, the age of consent for sex is only 14. Where trust or authority is involved, an adult cannot resort to the defence of religious belief against a charge of having sex with anyone under the age of 18. But marriage law complicates things.

In British Columbia, for instance, you can marry at the age of 16, with parental consent, or at 18, without it. Because of all the controversy, Bountiful recently changed its marriage rules to make them stricter than elsewhere. Now, you can’t get married in Bountiful before you’re 18, parental consent or not.

As for the sexual-abuse allegations, some women who have fled Bountiful say they’re true. Other Bountiful women, who describe themselves as liberated, and polygamists by choice, say it’s all nonsense. But it would be very surprising if no criminal charges result. Any interrogation and inquiry at this scale would likely find at least some foul play in any town of 800 people, anywhere in Canada.

So, for now, like any other town, Bountiful remains innocent unless proven guilty. But one aspect of the story is particularly intriguing, and it’s the way Bountiful fits into a distinct British Columbian tradition. On a North American map that showed the locations of utopian, dystopian and otherwise deliberately eccentric communities, B.C. would be completely covered in little push-pins.

Around the same time Susan B. Anthony was clucking her tongue in Victoria, the Holy City of Metlakatla was flourishing on a remote island near present-day Prince Rupert. Its streets were lit with gas lamps, and couples promenaded arm-in-arm down wooden sidewalks. The town had its own textile mill, cannery, sawmill and a massive, cathedral-sized church. Its residents were about 1,200 Tsimshians, followers of the Anglican zealot William Duncan. When uniformed Indians started patrolling the waters around Metlakatla and arresting non-native bootleggers, the place was doomed.

Long before Bountiful, the Kootenay Mountains were home to thousands of Doukhobours, those pacifist, vegetarian “spirit wrestlers” who fled Tsarist Russia in the 1890s. The Doukhobours were cruelly persecuted for refusing to swear oaths, register births and marriages, or send their children to public schools. A radical “Freedomite” movement emerged among them and started blowing things up and burning things down. The Doukhobours conformed. The Freedomites withered away in special prisons, with their children in residential schools.

In the early years of the 20th century, pacifist Finns established a socialist “free love” society at Sointula, on Malcolm Island, and similarly animated Danes tried to build a new world in the unforgiving environs of Cape Scott on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast. Teetotalling Norwegians established the town that would eventually be called Bella Coola. And then there was the Colony of Truth, established in the 1920s on Vancouver Island.

The Colony of Truth was led by two Svengalis. One was Brother Twelve, an illusionist and fortuneteller who claimed to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Osiris. The other was Madame Zee, a surly, whip-wielding dominatrix. The Twelvists established armed compounds on Valdes, DeCourcy and Ruxton Islands. When their anticipated apocalypse of January 1, 1934, came and went without incident, they burned their compounds and vanished.

The Fraser Valley community of Ruskin, named for the 19th-century British philosopher John Ruskin, was originally an industrial co-operative established by socialist sawmill workers in the 1930s. Now it’s a suburb. The Emissaries of the Divine Light set up shop at 100-Mile-House in the Cariboo around the same time as the Ruskinites were going strong, and the Emissaries hung on for 60 years.

Then there are all those coastal hippie settlements and Marxist communes from the 1970s, and here on Mayne Island, where I live, there was once a vaguely polygamist community of Spaniards known as the “Vivancas.” They were here for a while during the early 1990s, but we never learned much about them because the Vancouver newspapers’ “Spanish sex cult” stories drove them away. Nobody seems to know what happened to them.

The Bountiful people may not be quite so easily bullied. In Texas, some of Bountiful’s polygamous co-religionists, tired of being pushed around, are said to be settling in for a long, armed siege. Texas newspapers are warning about another Waco, that ghastly 1993 standoff that ended with the deaths of 80 Branch Dravidian sect members.

There’s no reason to think that anything remotely like a violent end inevitably awaits Bountiful. But good sense and common decency would seem to suggest that the Mounties should be left to do their work in the most dispassionate kind of way, and the rest of us should just calm down and leave Bountiful alone.

Terry Glavin is a B.C. author, critic and journalist. His most recent book, The Last Great Sea: A Voyage Through the Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean, won the 2001 Hubert Evans Prize. He is the editor of Transmontanus Books, and lives on Mayne Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands.

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