The women of a secretive polygamous sect in southeastern British Columbia have been cast as slaves, shackled by their religion in a world of abuse.
But several women from Bountiful, B.C., will tell a different story when they testify in a Vancouver courtroom this week, insisting polygamy has been a positive force in their lives and asking that the law against multiple marriage be thrown out.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge examining the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law has spent nearly two months hearing experts debate about the alleged harms of polygamy.
Several women and men who left polygamous communities have also recounted what they described as physical and emotional abuse.
But this week's testimony will offer a rare glimpse inside Bountiful, a highly secretive community that resists outside scrutiny.
"These people from the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) community will be almost the only witnesses who have direct experience with polygamy in Canada," George Macintosh, a court-appointed lawyer who is arguing against the current law, said in a recent interview.
"It's all very well for high-priced lawyers and high-priced experts to discuss things, but if we're doing so without regard to how it really works it's not a very valid exercise."
Bountiful has about 1,000 residents who are members of the FLDS, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that practises polygamy. The mainstream church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
The British Columbia and federal governments are holding up the community as an example of why polygamy should remain illegal, but the women are expected to say the law - not their marriages - is harming them and their families.
The judge in the case granted a rare request to allow the women to testify anonymously, shielding their identities from journalists and the public gallery at the courthouse. Instead, they will answer questions over a video link and their faces will be hidden.
The anonymous witnesses also include at least one man from Bountiful, as well as several people from polygamous communities in the United States.
In written affidavits filed with the court, the Bountiful women describe polygamy as a vital and rewarding part of their faith, but insist no one is ever forced to marry. At least two of the women are single, but say they hope to one day become plural wives.
"Although I know I have the option to say 'yes' or 'no' to the person I am called by the prophet to marry, I believe the prophet is inspired of God on these matters," writes a 25-year-woman, identified only as witness No. 11.
"I expect I will accept the direction of the prophet even though it may be the case that I do not know, or do not know well, the person I am to marry. I am not afraid of marrying someone I don't know or haven't met, because I know he will be someone the prophet recommends, who is virtuous and kind."
The woman says she has never seen the physical abuse that has been described at the hearings and that if a man abuses his wife, his family will be "taken from him and given to a man who will love and care for them carefully."
She says it's the law that has hurt the community.
"I sure think it would be a change for the better if polygamy was not a crime," she says. "We could spend less on lawyers and more on our families. And we would not have the worry of perhaps going to jail, and we would be at peace knowing that our children will never be stolen away from their families."
The community is bitterly divided into two factions, one led by Winston Blackmore and the other by James Oler, and all of the anonymous witnesses from Bountiful are from Mr. Oler's side.
"The split," as it's referred to in the community, happened after Warren Jeffs assumed control of the U.S.-based FLDS in 2002, and removed Mr. Blackmore as Bountiful's bishop. Mr. Jeffs is currently in an American prison awaiting trial on sexual assault and bigamy charges.
One half the community remains loyal to Mr. Blackmore, and the other to the FLDS and Mr. Oler, the new local bishop.
The court has heard Mr. Blackmore's side is more liberal, while Mr. Oler's has become even more closed under the direction of the FLDS.
Mr. Blackmore is boycotting the hearings. Mr. Oler originally offered to testify, but has since declined.
Two years ago, police moved into the community and arrested Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler, who were each charged with practising polygamy.
Those charges were later tossed out, prompting the province to launch the constitutional reference.
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