Bountiful polygamous sect sent teens to Alberta as cheap labour

Vancouver, Canada - A polygamous sect in Bountiful, B.C. under scrutiny for its treatment of women has used its young men and women as a cheap source of labour, according to court documents and a former church member.

Dozens of young people — some from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sect in Bountiful but others from the United States — were sent to Sundre, Alta. to work for a post, timber and logging operation, said Truman Oler.

They worked for low pay, long hours and in isolation. But the young people had little choice because their futures were dependent on the sect leaders’ decisions, he said.

Oler said he believed if he followed the rules, he would be assigned a wife and be able to build a home. He later quit both the job in Sundre and the polygamous sect.

The forestry operation was initially run by Blackmore and Sons, and later taken over by Oler Bros., both of which are Bountiful fundamentalist sect companies. Winston Blackmore is the bishop of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Bountiful.

The Alberta operation — which went bankrupt in 2009 — was little more than a slave labour camp, alleged Nancy Mereska, who started Stop Polygamy Canada after seeing a documentary on polygamy in Bountiful in 2003.

The wages at the Sundre operation were as low as $50 per week, and sometimes workers were called on to turn in their paycheques to the boss.

Experts who gave evidence last winter in a B.C. court case over the legality of polygamy noted that surplus men are often sent away to work to reduce competition for young wives desired by older men, as well as to provide cheap labour.

But not only men were called on to provide cheap labour.

Teressa Wall, a 14-year-old girl from Utah, was sent to Sundre when she refused to marry, according to her testimony. She was forced to work the night shift in tennis shoes and an old coat in the winter.

The polygamous sect is the focus of a B.C. Supreme Court case that wrapped up this spring. B.C.’s lawyers argued the practice of polygamy puts women and children at sufficient risk to justify limiting religious freedom.

Lawyers for the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints argued the courts need to separate the actions of abusers from the majority of sect’s members, who are hard-working, law-abiding citizens. Last month, the sect’s U.S. leader, Warren Jeffs, received a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls.