The first plural wife from Bountiful, B.C., to testify at a landmark court case examining Canada's polygamy law says she told her parents when she was 16 years old that she wanted to attend college after high school.
They replied by suggesting she get married first, so four months before her 17th birthday, she became the second wife of a 29-year-old man she describes as a community elder. He was already married to her sister, who became his first wife at 16.
"I did not know him well, I knew he was in good standing in the church," the woman, whose identity is protected from publication, told court Tuesday.
"He [my father]told me, 'You do not have to marry him if you don't want to.' I felt good about him, and I married him. My sister wife and I have lived at times in the same home, we've lived in different homes. I feel that we are both very committed in having a good relationship with each other."
The woman, a mother of nine who is now in her 40s, was the first witness from Bountiful to testify anonymously at the hearings. She is one of three witnesses who are expected to appear over a video link from an adjacent courtroom, their faces hidden from view.
Bountiful, a commune of about 1,000 people in southeastern British Columbia, follows a form of fundamentalist Mormonism long since rejected by the mainstream church. The isolated community has come under scrutiny at the hearings, which were prompted by the failed prosecution of Bountiful's two leaders on polygamy charges.
The court has already heard from former residents of Bountiful and similar polygamous communities who have told the court about forced marriages, physical and emotional abuse, and a culture that demands strict obedience from women and children.
In a calm voice, hesitating occasionally to collect her thoughts through heavy sighs, the woman offered a contradictory picture of life in the community, where she said girls can refuse marriages and are no longer married before the age of 18.
The policy restricting underage marriage was brought into effect nearly three years ago by the community's parent church in the United States, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. Since then, the woman said, she has not become aware of anyone under 18 who has been married.
The woman grew up in a family that included her father's five wives and about 30 children.
She said children are taught the importance of obedience, but women aren't forced to obey their husbands and they are free to divorce.
Children are encouraged to attend and finish school, she said, and some, like her, go on to postsecondary education. She spent six years completing training in nursing, the care of the elederly and midwifery.
The woman rejected claims that girls are forbidden to interact with or be alone with boys, although she acknowledged she was taught to see boys as "snakes" that are best avoided.
But she also acknowledged teenage girls have been sent to or from polygamous communities in the United States to be married.
The woman said she strongly objected when, at the age of 15, one of her daughters wanted to marry a 19-year-old man. Her husband raised those concerns with the community's bishop, she said, but in the end the teens were allowed to wed.
Her daughter has since left Bountiful, living with her husband in a monogamous marriage with two children, as has one of her sons.
And though she agrees with the church policy that underage girls shouldn't be married, the woman said she has no regrets about becoming a plural wife at 16.
"I feel like my husband really supported me through my years of education and he really has been a life-long friend to me, as well as watched my children when I went to school," she said.
"As far as having children when I was that young, looking back, I would have waited longer."
When asked under cross-examination whether she considered her marriage "child abuse," she answered with a simple, "No."
The only negative she raised in her testimony was living with the stigma and constant threat of Canada's anti-polygamy law.
"I believe that there's so many people in mainstream society that make so many assumptions about us that we are treated with bias and prejudice, and that affects my everyday life. If I wanted to go anywhere and get any sort of counselling in mainstream society, I feel like I would not be accepted," she said, adding that it's cost a lot of money for polygamists to stay out of jail.
The woman testified for nearly five hours on Tuesday, and most of that time was spent answering questions under cross-examination by lawyers for the provincial and federal governments.
She was questioned about her religion, with a B.C. government lawyer suggesting women are required by their religion to enter into polygamous marriages.
"My beliefs are that living plural marriage isn't for everyone," the witness said.
"But it is for everyone who wants to get to the highest celestial kingdom [of heaven] isn't it?" asked lawyer Leah Greathead.
"Maybe everyone doesn't want to," the woman replied.
The constitutional hearings were prompted by the failed prosecution of Bountiful leaders Winston Blackmore and James Oler, who were each charged in 2009 with practising polygamy. A judge later threw out the charges on technical grounds.
All of the anonymous witnesses are from Mr. Oler's side, which the court has heard is more strict than Mr. Blackmore's.
Mr. Blackmore is boycotting the hearings because he was denied government funding. Mr. Oler initially offered to testify, but later decided against appearing.
The Canadian Press