An evangelical Christian group, which operated some of the last Indian residential schools in Canada, continues to run youth programs in northern Ontario that members of the LGBTQ2 community say convey a harmful message and may be costing lives.
Northern Youth Programs calls itself “a conservative Mennonite para-church organization” with a vision “that disciples of Jesus Christ will be made in every Aboriginal community in Canada.”
The organization closed its last residential school, Stirland Lake, in 1991, and now runs Bible camps, retreats and counselling services in Dryden, Ont. American missionary families associated with the group often fly into remote First Nations, including to Wapekeka First Nation after the suicide crisis there in 2017.
But conservative, Bible-based teachings on homosexuality may be contributing to the suicide crisis in northern Ontario First Nations, not lessening it, say LGBTQ2 youth familiar with the pressures of evangelical Christian teachings.
“It really is a tough topic to navigate around, especially if you’re young,” said Janine Frogg, 22, from Wapekeka First Nation, a small community of about 400 residents located about 500 kilometres north of Dryden.
“I heard that people are saying, ‘God isn’t accepting of gay people or homosexual people,’ and I think that’s what causes a lot of pressure and trauma.”
Frogg, who grew up in Sioux Lookout, Ont., said her family was supportive when she came out as a lesbian to them about a year and a half ago.
“In our communities up north that follow the church more, that’s where all the pressure comes from, I think — this homophobia,” she said.
It’s the kind of pressure that can have tragic consequences said Frogg’s friend and fellow Nishnawbe Aski Nation youth council member, Ashley Bach.
“I was in foster care out West, with a non-Native family, and I went through [similar] church groups, and it was awful,” said 26-year-old Bach, who is bisexual and two-spirit from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. “I mean, I tried to kill myself multiple times during that period.”
‘It isn’t hopeless’
Bach said she wants young people to know that “while it felt like my situation wouldn’t get better, it did, and I am learning to love myself now — that it isn’t hopeless. Things can get better for youth going through this right now, too.”
It’s a critical message, as Bach, now living in Ottawa and thriving as a postgraduate student, worries about the young people back home who may be exposed to teachings like those contained in Northern Youth Programs’ booklet called Freedom from Destructive Spirits.
“These unclean spirits can cause all kinds of sexual sins such as homosexuality, perversions and lust,” the booklet states. “This uncleanness is a result of rebellion in man’s heart. God hates this kind of uncleanness and will punish it.”
In a statement to CBC News, Northern Youth Programs said its message to LGBTQ2 youth is: “We love you as you are. So does God. You’re a unique person.”
When asked to clarify how the materials about unclean spirits and God’s punishment align with the message that God loves everyone, Northern Youth Programs CEO Norman Miller said, “We support and love those that choose to commit sin, and so does God.”
Is it conversion therapy?
It’s a circular argument that is familiar to Kristopher Wells, Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University.
Telling LGBTQ2 people that homosexuality is a choice and a sin is an attempt to fundamentally deny or change who they are, Wells said, and that could be construed as a form of conversion therapy, a practice that is against the law in Ontario when it involves minors.
“Conversion therapy is any attempt to fix, change, repair or repress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” Wells said.
It has been classified as torture, banned by professional organizations, restricted by governments and outlawed by several countries around the world. (Canada introduced legislation banning conversion therapy last spring, but the bill died with the prorogation of Parliament in August.)
“If it starts from an anti-LGBTQ2 ideology, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with being an LGBTQ2 person, then it’s… an unethical and harmful practice that should be banned,” he said.
In response to the allegation Northern Youth Programs may be practising conversion therapy, Miller said, “We are not focused on or interested in changing their [LGBTQ2 youth] sexual orientation or gender identity.”
In 2017, Northern Youth Programs hired Vancouver-based Journey Canada for LGBTQ2 awareness training for its staff, according to Miller.
“We found the training to increase our awareness of the challenges faced by LGBTQ youth, and consequently increased our sense of compassion,” he said.
‘Even if it’s supposed to be loving, it can still be very harmful’
Bach said churches need to reconsider whether telling LGBTQ2 people that expressing their sexuality is against God’s will can be considered compassionate.
“You can be saying that in a way that is intended with love … and with the intention of protecting people from going to hell, but the outcome, even if it’s supposed to be loving, it can still be very harmful,” Bach said.
Melody McKiver, a two-spirit Anishinaabe youth worker and a member of Lac Seul First Nation, says homophobia and transphobia have “devastating effects” in remote First Nations in northern Ontario.
McKiver said anti-LGBTQ2 views appear to be much more widespread in rural and remote areas than the cities where she lived before moving to Sioux Lookout five years ago.
Many churches and some people who practise traditional Anishinaabe spirituality convey harmful messages to LGBTQ2 youth and claim that’s in keeping with traditional First Nations beliefs against homosexuality, McKiver said.
Communities need more soul-searching
“I would challenge that, and I would like to see more allies in the community challenging that, too,” McKiver said. “Too often those statements are left standing, and the communities need to do more soul-searching. Our youth are struggling and just asking for respect.
“It doesn’t have to be that way. Our communities have the ability to be as loving and affirming as I believe that our values have always taught.”
Grand Council Treaty 3, which represents 28 First Nations, in northern Ontario, recently announced a change to its traditional Anishinaabe governance structure, adding an LGBTQ2S council that will be a part of all decision-making within the nation.
“Personally, I know many people from the LGBTQ group. I’ve worked with them, and I don’t know the realities of their lives,” said Ogichidaa (Grand Chief) Francis Kavanaugh. “We need them in our governance to provide their perspective, to let them know the nation loves them and so they don’t feel left out.”
The grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), representing 49 communities in Ontario’s remote north, told CBC News that anti-LGBTQ2 messages will no longer be tolerated in its territory.
“For any organization that works with us, that promotes those views, they’re not welcome. They’re not welcome in NAN,” Alvin Fiddler said.
But some communities within NAN could be directing their federal funding dollars toward Northern Youth Programs through NAN’s own suicide prevention program, Choose Life. Under the initiative, individual First Nations within NAN have the authority to choose and hire their own service providers.
Mishkeegogamang First Nation, for example, recently advertised a recreational program for youth run by Beaver Lake Camp. Former chief Connie Gray-McKay posted on Facebook that the camp was sponsored by Choose Life.
Fiddler said NAN will look at developing policies and protocols to prohibit homophobic service providers from interacting with young people. That might not be easy.
Northern Youth Programs’ legacy is long and entrenched in remote First Nations where the group’s residential schools date back to 1962, the last one closing in 1991 after a dispute with First Nations leaders over harsh disciplinary practices, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report.
“Rather than giving up biblical principles, we decided to stay within our guidelines [on the use of corporal punishment],” the TRC quotes the school’s director as saying.
Fiddler recalls the story of the “hockey stick uprising” at Stirland Lake residential school in 1987. That’s when students hit staff members with hockey sticks and pieces of firewood. Fifty-nine students were expelled, and one was convicted with assault causing bodily harm.
The reality that staff could get away with holding students down and beating them “black and blue” with a leather strap but students were made into criminals for fighting back was a turning point in attitudes about the Northern Youth Programs-affiliated residential schools, according to the TRC.
Homophobia as a residential school legacy
McKiver, who was part of TRC’s advisory circle on LGBTQ2 issues, sees a link between the lessons learned at those schools and the challenges facing LGBTQ2 youth in northwestern Ontario.
The segregation of the genders at the schools, the indoctrination into Christian beliefs and the sexual violence at the schools left a long shadow, McKiver said. There is also the history of a prolific pedophile in the region.
Ralph Rowe, a former Anglican priest was convicted of nearly 60 sex crimes and is believed to have sexually assaulted as many as 500 boys in remote First Nations scattered across the north.
McKiver said people traumatized by childhood sexual abuse, either by Rowe or at residential schools, often associate sexual violence with any adult LGBTQ2 person.
“It’s a really damaging narrative that equates LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and I think a lot of direct work needs to be done to dismantle that stereotype,” McKiver said. “And I think it’s something that’s widely believed across the region, and it’s something that’s not true.”
McKiver asks people to consider what they’d want for LGBTQ2 members of their own families as they make decisions about what services should be available to young people and who should be providing them.
As the father of an LGBTQ2 child, Fiddler said he is trying to do just that.
“As a human being, as a dad, we need to support our children and show our love and acceptance for them, and they need to know they’re part of the family,” Fiddler said.
Both Frogg and Bach welcome the statements and support from their leaders, as even as they say more work needs to be done to keep all NAN youth safe from anti-LGBTQ2 attitudes and actions.
They are part of a growing online community of LBGTQ2 youth that support each other in becoming more fully themselves.
“There are more youth and adults wanting to follow traditional [Nishnawbe] teachings and beliefs,” Frogg said. “That’s what the youth are hearing, and they’re becoming more accepting of each other and themselves.”
“For me, that meant it was OK to be myself.”