Canada’s system of residential schools had a specific purpose: to replace Indigenous values, beliefs, and understandings of the world with those of the European colonizers. A key part of that process involved converting students to Christianity. It may sound like ancient history, but it’s actually pretty recent, with the last government-funded residential school closing in 1996.
As for the project those schools existed to enact, it continues on under a different name.
Consider the case of Northern Youth Programs, the “conservative Mennonite para-church organization” that is the focus of a new investigation by the CBC’s Jody Porter. The group, which formerly ran three residential schools, closed its last location as recently as 1991.
But they’re still active, pitching colonial Christianity in remote communities and running Bible camps, religious retreats, and counseling services not far from the Ontario/Manitoba border.
Peddling Bible lessons on-reserve is a dicey proposition given the history of colonization, but it’s the counseling that’s the real trap. Mental illness is a known problem in First Nations communities, in no small part because of the trauma inflicted on children attending residential schools. Yet in spite of higher rates of mental illness than the general population, the communities are notoriously underserved.
In comes Northern Youth Programs to fill the gap with “a Biblical approach to counseling” and, given the scarcity of services, people in crisis take what they can get. Even if — as is the case for queer Indigenous youth — the proffered help ends up making the problem even worse:
American missionary families associated with the group often fly in to 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.
(The number 2 in the acronym, commonly used in Canada, stands for “two-spirit”: a uniquely Indigenous umbrella term that describes a range of queer identities informed by Indigenous culture and traditions.)
It makes perfect sense. In a society where homophobic and transphobic sentiment is still a major problem, LGBTQ youth are at risk for mental health problems and suicide. Indigenous youth are already at elevated risk whether or not they’re queer. Combine the two, and it’s easy to see the danger in making Bible-based counseling one of the few services struggling people can access.
There’s no reason to suspect that the Wapekeka suicide crisis had any relationship to anti-LGBTQ sentiment. But it’s a tragic illustration of the gap in funding and access that makes remote First Nations communities so vulnerable to charities with religious agendas when they offer a literal lifeline to people in crisis.
Northern Youth Programs also plays a role in making communities less hospitable for queer members by promoting anti-LGBTQ sentiment in their educational materials. They have distributed a booklet — Freedom from Destructive Spirits — arguing that LGBTQ identities have demonic origins:
Evil spirits attack people physically. These unclean spirits can cause all kinds of sexual sins such as homosexuality, perversions, and lust. This uncleanness is a result of rebellion in man’s heart. God hates this kind of uncleanness (Romans 1:24–32) and will punish it.
The document also claims that “the family is under attack” (where family is very specifically defined as “father, mother, and children, with the father as leader”) and encourages the faithful to cut contact with “family or friends who are still involved with demonic activity,” lest evil spirits re-infect them.
If you find it hard to envision how those views could be anything but harmful to queer youth, you’re not the only one. Porter had similar questions:
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.”
Miller denies that what his organization offers is conversion therapy, saying they don’t focus on changing anybody’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But even if that’s technically accurate, it doesn’t excuse the harm the organization causes to First Nations youth.
Prejudice against sexual and gender minorities is another painful legacy of colonization and assimilation, practices that groups like Northern Youth Programs apologize for even as they continue to encourage and enact it in remote communities.
Fortunately, not everyone is buying it. Activists continue to label the rejection of queer Indigenous youth as a colonial practice, antithetical to traditional First Nations values. Even more importantly, leaders of Northern Ontario nations have begun to challenge LGBTQ exclusion by changing governance structures to provide access for LGBTQ voices or refusing aid from organizations that promote anti-LGBTQ views.
If Canada is serious about reconciliation, the government would do well to invest in mental health services for remote communities, so they aren’t relying on counselors who, Bible in hand, gamble with the lives of First Nations children… just like the residential schools once did.
(Thanks to Dorothy and Richard for the link)