Thunder Bay

Pride group calls for ban on anti-LGBTQ2 missionaries entering Canada

Borderland Pride is asking the federal government to investigate American members of an evangelical Christian group that works with youth in northwestern Ontario First Nations after concerns were raised that their homophobic messages are having tragic consequences.

Call comes after CBC News investigation into Northern Youth Programs work with Indigenous youth

Borderland Pride says the federal government could use existing legislation to prevent anti-LGBTQ missionaries and their materials from entering Canada. (Ken Kellar)

An LGBTQ2 advocacy group is asking the federal government to investigate American members of an evangelical Christian group that works with youth in northwestern Ontario First Nations after concerns were raised that their homophobic messages are having tragic consequences.

Northern Youth Programs removed counselling resources from its website after an CBC News investigation reported on homophobic language in the materials, including one that described homosexuality as a sin that would be punished by God.

"The article prompted us to look at these materials with fresh eyes, and focus on our priorities of providing a safe environment for youth and families to grow in their relationship with Christ and with each other," said Northern Youth Programs CEO Norm Miller.

But the move provides little comfort to Peter Howie, the co-chair of Borderland Pride, based in Fort Frances, Ont., about 200 kilometres from Dryden, where Northern Youth Programs is based.

"I think is an attempt at a cover up, as opposed to a whole-hearted shift in their approach to these issues," Howie said. "They'd need to be a lot more explicit in their position to give me any comfort."

That's why Borderland Pride wrote to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, asking for an investigation into "individuals associated with Northern Youth Programs who have been admitted to Canada who are not Canadian citizens."

The majority of the board members of Northern Youth Programs are Americans. Some of the missionaries affiliated with the group who travel to remote First Nations, refer to themselves as Americans in their Facebook posts about their work.

The Pride group said any Americans who are found to be involved in suppressing or denying the LGBTQ2 identities of young Canadians could be barred from the country under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that deems people inadmissible if they are "engaging in acts of violence that would endanger or might endanger the lives or safety of persons in Canada."

The Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) expressed concerns that anti-LGBTQ2 messages from groups like Northern Youth Programs could be contributing to the suicide crisis in the region. Alvin Fiddler said such organizations are no longer welcome in NAN.

'We can't take a back seat'

Borderland Pride wants to contribute to the effort to keep Indigenous youth safe, Howie said. 

"What [anti-LGBTQ2 missionaries] do is destructive and we call on Canada to do something about it," Howie said. "The issues are amplified for Indigenous youth and there are more risks of serious harm and suicide, so I do think that Indigenous people and Indigenous organizations have a lot to contribute to this debate and [as a Pride organization] we can't take a back seat , this is an important issue for us too."

Borderland Pride and two other advocacy groups in the region — Rainbow Alliance Dryden and Thunder Pride — also wrote to Kenora MP Eric Melillo asking him to support a ban on conversion therapy in light of the revelations about Northern Youth Programs online materials.

Proposed legislation banning practices that attempt to fix, change, repair or repress a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued in August.

In response to the allegation that 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."

Still, the head of Rainbow Alliance Dryden said it's important to let young people in the region know they are loved and supported.

"Since the purpose of conversion therapy is to change something that is not a choice — we wanted to show our 2SLGBTQ+ youth that they are accepted and embraced as they are," said Catherine Kiewning. "We were also very troubled by Northern Youth Programs ties to residential schools in our area and the on-going harm associated with it."

'Political wedge issue'

Howie said he's worried that the Liberal government is trying to use conversion therapy as a wedge issue and hopes that Melillo will avoid that partisanship.

"It's not helpful for young people to have these debates in public because it makes it seem like their identities are things that can be challenged and and questioned and scrutinized," Howie said. "That contributes to the problem we want addressed and that's that we want LGBTQ identities recognized and respected."

The federal government has an opportunity to act now to show they care about LGBTQ2 youth, he said.

"I want the Trudeau government to stop treating conversion therapy as a political wedge issue and actually take action to protect young people," Howie said. Barring anti-LGBTQ2 missionaries and their materials from entering the country is "a concrete way the Canadian government can do that and we don't need to wait for legislation to pass in a minority Parliament."

Blair's office said it has received the letter from Borderland Pride and is in the process of reviewing it.

"Every Canadian has the right to be who they are and love who they love," said Mary-Liz Power, spokesperson for Minister Blair. "Our Government promised to ban conversion therapy and we will move forward on that commitment."

CBC News asked Melillo for response to the letters he was sent from the Pride groups. No response was given by the time of publication.