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Members of the polygamous community of Bountiful gather for church Sunday, April 20, 2008 near Creston, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Members of the polygamous community of Bountiful gather for church Sunday, April 20, 2008 near Creston, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Video testimony provides a look into polygamous lifestyle Add to ...

Carolyn Jessop was 18 years old when she was forced to marry a 50-year-old man, becoming his third wife. By the time she fled in 2003, she had eight children.

Don Fischer said he was shipped between sects of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Hildale, Utah, and Bountiful, B.C., until he was finally expelled at age 16, becoming one of the so-called "lost boys" of polygamy.

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Ruth Lane was wife No. 10 for Winston Blackmore, one of the polygamous leaders of Bountiful, until she left four years ago. But despite a broken heart, Ms. Lane wants Canada's ban on multiple marriage struck down.

They are among the former wives and children of polygamy who've offered their stories, captured on video by government lawyers, for a landmark case in B.C. to determine whether the federal law barring multiple marriage is in accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A judge will decide on Tuesday whether the video affidavits can be viewed by the public.

There are 14 such videos. Several other witnesses have submitted written affidavits or will appear in person before the B.C. Supreme Court judge hearing the reference case.

The Crown wants the law upheld, and contends that polygamy is inherently harmful to women and children.

Lawyers fighting the law say it's the legal ban, not polygamy itself, that has shackled the lives of those who practise "celestial marriage."

Ms. Jessop has become a vocal critic of polygamy and the FLDS, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which itself abandoned polygamy more than a century ago.

Earlier this year, Ms. Jessop released an autobiography titled Triumph: Life After the Cult, a Survivor's Lesson.

In her video affidavit, she described a husband who was constantly abusive to her and her eight children, including a son who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She said her husband tried to prevent her from taking her son to the hospital for treatment - hinting, she said, that God was killing the child to punish her for her disobedience.

That was the breaking point. She waited until he was out of town one night, frantically gathered her children in a van and drove off.

"I thought, if I had to let my baby die to get into heaven, maybe heaven isn't the place I want to be," she told a B.C. government lawyer asking questions from behind the camera. "I didn't want this life for my kids."

Sitting at a table in her home, her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap, Ms. Jessop breaks down in tears when the subject turns to her children, but she quickly regains her composure. She's told this story many times before.

She ended up in Salt Lake City, she said, living in shelters on welfare for several years. Her eldest daughter moved back to the church, but she eventually won legal custody of her children.

She said polygamy puts the power in the hands of men.

"When you live in a way that's incredibly unnatural like this, unnatural things happen, and they're ugly," she said. "I don't think you can have equality in that lifestyle, I don't think it's possible. ... It's just a psychological warfare that devastates lives."

Ruth Lane looks back on her life differently.

Ms. Lane left Bountiful in 2006, less than a year after she appeared on the daytime TV show Dr. Phil extolling the virtues of polygamous life. She grew up in Colorado City, Ariz., and married Mr. Blackmore at age 15 - at her own request, she said.

In the video, Ms. Lane, wearing a pink tank top and her brown hair tied behind her head, smiled even when describing the breakdown of her marriage to Mr. Blackmore. She was wife No. 10. Her younger sister was No. 11.

Mr. Blackmore eventually had 25 wives and more than 130 children, she said.

"The first couple of years for me were golden, we had a lot of fun until we had more kids and started getting more cramped," she said.

"I was pregnant for the seventh time, knowing that I was doing this again all by myself. I really felt like that I wanted a relationship, and he pretty much said he definitely would not work on a relationship. ... It's like I told my daughter, he broke my heart, so I left him."

Yet Ms. Lane opposes Canada's ban on polygamy, and advocates allowing adult women to enter into polygamous marriages.

"I really would like the people that want to do that lifestyle - if my daughter does choose that lifestyle, I'd very much like her to be able to live it within the law," she told the camera. "I would like her to have the ability to be proud and be a somebody, not just a plural wife, but a wife."

Don Fischer said he was one of more than 30 children his father had with three wives. A rebellious teen, he said he stuck up for his siblings in the face of his father's physical abuse and paid a price for it.

At 14, he was sent from Utah to live in Bountiful, in what he described as a "labour camp." He returned to Utah two years later, after his father died and his mother - along with the rest of her "sister wives" - was about to remarry.

He was expelled along with his brothers for misbehaving, "repented" and returned after eight months on his own. At 18, Mr. Fischer left Utah and returned to Canada and Mr. Blackmore's fold.

"But I decided I wasn't interested in that, either, so I got completely out of the entire religion altogether," he said.

He's now 26 and has two children. He hasn't seen his mother or most of his siblings in years.

"You didn't know it then, but now that I'm out here, I didn't exist out there, I wasn't a person, I wasn't alive," Mr. Fischer said.

"You get to decide what you want to do and where you want to go and who you want to be with," he said of life outside of the FLDS. "You have the choices, you're free to be somebody, whereas out there, you do what they say. You're one of their slaves, you're pretty much treated as cattle."

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