Utah Attorney General Headed to Canada to Discuss Polygamy

Utah Attorney General Headed to Canada to Discuss Polygamy

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Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff takes the polygamy issue north to British Columbia when he meets next week with his counterpart there and with women's groups concerned about the status of women living in communities practicing plural marriage.

Shurtleff will meet with Wally Oppal, the attorney general and minister responsible for multiculturalism on Dec. 8 in Vancouver.

Oppal, whose been in his job just five months, said he welcomes Shurtleff's visit, advice and the exchange of ideas.

As in Utah, polygamy in Canada has received spotty attention from political and law enforcement officials over the last 50 years. But Oppal said that climate is changing.

"I get a lot of letters from people wondering why we won't do anything about it," the minister said. "When I took office, I made the statement that I am prepared to prosecute."

Historically, however, police investigations have never netted any willing witnesses to testify against alleged perpetrators, he said. Currently the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is investigating allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in Bountiful, a British Columbia town founded by members of a polygamous sect, he said.

"The polygamy issue doesn't concern me as much as the allegation of sexual exploitation and sexual assault. Those are the matters of obvious concerns," Oppal said.

Like Oppal, Shurtleff, has said he's less concerned about polygamy than he is with crimes against women and children. He wasn't available Wednesday for comment.

About three years ago, Shurtleff made the issue a central focus of his administration, after a handful of women left various Utah polygamist communities and spoke out about abuses. Since 1998, Utah has prosecuted five polygamists for a variety of crimes, including bigamy, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and child abuse.

Shurtleff has also worked with the Legislature to tighten the law and with a cadre of Utah polygamist women to draft a manual for social service workers to improve the services to women and children from plural families.

In Canada, a combination of news stories and recent events, including the split in leadership of the sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has similarly brought more attention to the issue, including allegations of sexual and child abuse, and cases of illegal immigration.

The FLDS church is headquartered in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where many of its estimated 10,000 members live. The church teaches that plural marriage is essential if members want to be glorified in heaven.

In 1947, four families from the church settled near Creston, British Columbia, founding a community known as Bountiful, where about 1,000 members live today.

In the past year, a variety of Canadian women's organizations have started talking about the matter, and they'll meet with Shurtleff in the hope of gaining some insight into dealing with polygamy.

"What we hope to hear from him really is what are strategies that have been effective and also are there ways that he sees cooperation between the two countries in dealing with the situation," said Mary Plant, chairwoman for the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women. The federation held two polygamy roundtable discussions this year, including one in October with about a dozen Bountiful women who defended their way of life.

"We've been trying to educate the public about what is happening in Bountiful," Plant said. "Our second purpose has been to try to move the government into action."

Plant and others contend Canadian officials need to enforce the federal and provincial laws that make polygamy illegal and address the immigration problem. Some contend young women have long been trafficked across the U.S.-Canada border to enter plural marriages.

"It's because (the government) looked the other way for so many years that we're in this predicament," said Audrey Vance, who helped found Altering Destiny Through Education, an advocacy group lobbying for oversight of schools in Bountiful receiving public funds. "I think you have to stop this trafficking at the border."

Vance said she hopes Shurtleff's meeting with Oppal will help the minister better understand "how big this problem can get if you do nothing about it."

"I can see why the politicians don't want to touch it," Vance said. "I'm afraid in Canada it's finally going to have to come to court sooner or later."

That's likely true, says Alison Brewin, executive director of the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure legal equality for women. Brewin says that while polygamy is illegal, a federal charter of rights also protects religious freedoms and there is disagreement about whether plural marriage might be protected under the charter. She notes the debate extends beyond the community of Bountiful to other religious groups, primarily Muslims who have emigrated to Canada.

"I guess our organization's position is that the courts are there to decide these questions," she said. "When you've got families emigrating from countries where polygamy is practiced and this is valued family structure, they want recognition."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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