POLITICO FEATURE – The Bridge to Disharmony: Guelph’s Complex Reaction to Scientology’s Arrival

The Church of Scientology is taking over 40 Baker Street as the administrative headquarters for their organization, which has naturally prompted some controversy. In this first monthly investigative Politico feature, we take a look at Scientology in Canada, why they’ve come to Guelph, and why people are concerned about what they’re doing now that they’re here.

I: A Conundrum on Baker Street

It’s a pleasant Friday afternoon on Baker Street. As he has for the last 24 weeks, Edward Pickersgill stands outside number 40 with a line of tables topped with totes filled with clothing, food stuffs and toiletries. Anywhere between 50 and 80 people stop by everyday for tampons, a new shirt, a box of cereal, or even just an apple and a bottle of water.

Pickersgill seems to know everyone that stops by, but there are some people going by that he doesn’t know. He directs me to look down the sidewalk to two people walking into 40 Baker. They’re Scientologists, he says. The short-sleeved coloured polo shirt and khakis seem to be the proverbial uniform for those now occupying 40 Baker. They don’t talk much with Pickersgill and the ones he helps, but them, and their organization, are the talk of the town.

The Church of Scientology began moving into 40 Baker Street about a month ago. The building has been empty since this past spring, when Pickersgill and the Out of Poverty Society, the building’s last major tenant, was basically evicted by the building owners. “They wanted me to pay for the entire building, which I could not do even though I did give it a couple weeks of deep thought,” said Pickersgill. “Two weeks into April they decided to change the locks and put the building up for sale and/or lease through Murray Taylor realtors.”

Quingxian Zhang and Guangyun Hou, who also own PC Trust Computers downtown, are the owners of 40 Baker, not that they will confirm that. “I don’t have any comment for you,” is all that Zhang would tell Guelph Politico.

II: Nothing to See Here

The Church of Scientology describes itself as “a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being.”

It sounds fairly benign, but the Church is finding itself the centre of renewed controversy thanks to the documentary Going Clear and the A&E reality show Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. The Church is under a publicity siege, and the harshest attacks are coming from people that used to be on the inside, which may be why they wanted to ease any community concerns about what their move to Guelph is about.

“The Church of Scientology is moving some office personnel to the building on 40 Baker Street. These are from what we call the Continental Liaison Office,” said Rev. Yvette Shank, public affairs director with the Church of Scientology, in an email. Guelph Politico asked for a phone interview with Rev. Shank, but she was unavailable.

“Within the hierarchy of the Church of Scientology is a network of Continental Liaison Offices (CLOs) responsible for coordinating Scientology activities on regional and local levels,” Shank explained in her email. “These offices serve to support the actions of local Churches, missions and groups in their respective areas and serve as a coordinating and rallying point for all Scientology activities associated with those Churches.”

In other words, “There will be no public facilities at 40 Baker, it is administrative personnel who will work there,” Shank added.

“To be perfectly honest, the CLO is not going to interact nearly as much with civilians, they’re probably not going to try and get people on the service, which is training and process, because that’s not what they’re there for,” explained Dan Garvin, who was a member of Scientology’s Sea Org, which manages the CLOs. Garvin left the Church in 2001.

“I was in the CLO in Toronto back in the early 80s,” he added. “It is a major regional management centre for the corporation, so they have departments that manage all of the organizations in the area, which, in your case, would be Canada.”

The public face of the Church of Scientology is down the road in Cambridge. The Ideal Org there was opened in February 2013, and no less than the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board Religious Technology Centre, was in attendance. According to the Church’s press release marking the opening, the Ideal Org in Cambridge provides displays about the beliefs and practices of the Scientology and the life of founder L. Ron Hubbard, an information centre about Church-sponsored humanitarian programs, multi-purpose and seminar rooms, and a chapel that’s open for religious services, weddings, and other community events.

This begs the question though: with such a large facility just a few miles down the road, why is the Church moving into 40 Baker Street?

“A CLO is literally just a data-gathering office for them,” said Tony Ortega, a journalist and former editor of The Village Voice whose dedicated himself to the investigation of the Church on his site, The Underground Bunker. “It’s completely useless to anyone in the area, and even to most of Scientology.”

III: An Extinction Level Event

“Scientology is all but extinct in Canada, so there’s no data for a CLO to accumulate,” said Ortega. “It’s a preposterous notion that the country would need one.”

Indeed, if it weren’t for the high-profile move to the Royal City, and the glitzy looking Ideal Org in Cambridge, you might be hard pressed to find somewhere that Scientologists gather in Ontario. The Yonge Street location, which was established in 1968 and was for years Scientology’s most visible piece of real estate in Canada, has been awaiting renovations to make it the Church’s latest Ideal Org since 2012. It’s forced Scientology to move certain activities elsewhere.

“The old CLO was at the Toronto org on Yonge Street. It’s now empty and decaying,” said Rod Keller, a senior reporter with Ortega’s site.

In 2009, Scientology bought the Hockley Highlands Inn and Conference Centre in Mono, Ontario, an hour’s drive northeast in Dufferin County. The property sits on 80 hectares of land and has five buildings that total around 160,000 square feet. A 2011 Toronto Star article said that the Church’s plans for the property included “‘first-class’ lodge accommodations, a luxurious conference centre and a café,” which would “house as many as 200 permanent staff members.”

“It was announced as the new CLO and also an Advanced Org where Scientologists could do the OT or Operating Thetan levels,” added Keller. “Rumours are that it has been the CLO for several years.”

So if they’ve got swanky new digs in Mono, why take up a two year lease in the Royal City? “I suppose there are several reasons to move it to Guelph,” explained Keller. “They might be starting renovations on the site and need temporary office space. Or there might be something wrong with it, a fire, asbestos, a flood but that’s speculation.”

“As far as the details of the new building, we are tenants, not owners of the premises and cannot comment on anything further in regards to the building,” said Rev. Shank. “I will say that we have begun moving in, and we are using the entire building.”

But for what?

“They do continental level marketing programs, things that are tailored to that area,” Garvin explained. “They also have a continental level office of special affairs, which is where all of the PR actions are done, including “dead agenting”, any legal actions, lawsuits, governmental and intelligence activities.

“That’s their spy branch,” he added, “and it has private investigators whose actions are not directly traceable back to Scientology organizations.”

IV: We Have Concerns

It’s just after lunch time, and Laura Roy and Bree Isley sit comfortably at a downtown cafe even as they put the Church of Scientology on notice that they’re not welcome in Guelph. Their Facebook group, Guelph Stands Against Scientology, had gathered over 600 members within just a few days of being started.

“I want to make it clear this has nothing to do with religion,” said Roy. “There are members in our group of all faiths, atheists too, people from all kinds of churches. This is not about religion, this is about a predatory cult.”

Isley, who like Roy was affected by what she’s seen of Scientology in the culture, agrees in terms of how she sees the Church’s motives. “We’re a university town, all those young lives can be sucked into it because they’re still finding themselves,” she added. “For me personally, I feel like Scientology is a business entity, not a religion.”

Canada, it seems, agrees. Despite the Church of Scientology’s desire to be seen as a religion complete with tax exempt status, the Canadian government merely classifies it as a religion-based non-profit. In other words, they can perform wedding ceremonies, but you can’t get a tax receipt for any money you give to the Church. In a 2013 court case, Justice F.J. Pizzitelli ruled that Scientology “is not a registered Charity in Canada nor apparently even applied to be.” The ruling was made when Nigel Hall sued the federal government saying that his Charter rights were violated because his financial donation to the International Association of Scientologists wasn’t recognized as a deduction by the Canadian Revenue Agency.

But money isn’t the concern here. Opponents to Scientology in Guelph note that our city is uniquely vulnerable, especially University of Guelph students who feel the stress of their studies. “One of their favourite ways to get people in is stress tests and personality tests,” said one member of the Facebook group who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “And once they get your name and contact information, it never ends.”

But it’s not just about the students. “There’s been a lot of concern in our group for the addicts and the vulnerable downtown. People who are disenfranchised,” added Roy.

What she’s talking about is Narconon, the substance abuse and addiction treatment program run by the Church of Scientology. Numerous controversies have chased Narconon through the decades, among them the fact that Narconon’s programs seem to have no scientific validity, and that the entire endeavour is a backdoor recruitment scheme. “It’s huge doses of vitamins, hours and hours of running, and sitting in saunas sweating to pieces,” said the anonymous member of the group.

“They have a legitimate presence, but the problem with Narconon is that recruitment starts from the middle to the end of the recovery process, promoting the ideology of Scientology,” said Roy. “I consider these people some of the most vulnerable in our community, it’s a big concern.”

Back in Dufferin County, Narconon was looking at a property east of Orangeville for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. The property, which was the estate of the late Conservative MP Donald Blenkarn, was sold to an “area resident” in 2013 over an offer by Narconon through a Delaware holding company even though the winning bid was said to be below the $2.9 million asking price. An article in Metro said that public pressure played a role in the rejection of Narconon’s bid to buy the property.

V: Meet the Neighbours

It should be no surprise then that a weary eye is being cast on everything that the Church of Scientology is doing at 40 Baker. Last week, there were rumours that the Church had begun construction inside the building, which is refuted by the City of Guelph.

“Two inspectors have been through the building, and there’s no current construction ongoing by the new tenants,” said Rob Reynen, Chief Building Official of the City. “They plan on doing some additional renovations, and they’ve obtained an architect to do drawings so they can get a building permit.”

“They’re cleaning, of course, and tidying things up, but nothing that requires a building permit,” Reynen added.

Pickersgill looks at his old building and laments what will be lost. He expects that there will be work on the outside, as well as the inside, and he points to a collage of painted handprints created a few years ago by some of the young people he assisted with art programs at 40 Baker. He said he thinks those will be painted over by the time the long weekend is through.

As for 40x Mobile, Pickersgill will keep doing what he’s doing as long as he can. “I have not asked permission from anyone and nobody has complained or challenged our presence there,” he said about being neighbours with the Church.

The real test of community relations though will be on October 28, when Guelph Stands Against Scientology launches their first protest in-person. “We want to get this off the ground as soon as possible, and this is not going to be the last one,” said Roy. “I’m talking about peacefully protesting and educating in our community, and inoculating people against Scientology, but [people] are free to make up their own minds.”

As for Scientology’s infamous reputation to fight back against their critics, the group has already thought about that. “I’m ready for it,” said Isley. “I feel like I’m a strong person, and I can take whatever anybody throws at me. If something does come out of this, I’m ready to fight back if I have to, but I don’t want to.”

Incidentally, the email Guelph Politico received from Rev. Shank dealt predominantly with what she considered inaccuracies in the previous Politico article on the Church’s move-in at 40 Baker.

When the protest begins, Garvin said that people should know the letter of the law, and where their rights begin and end. “They’re not going to be nice and ask you to move on,” he said, adding that protestors should be sure to document their protest with video to guard themselves against litigation. “Most likely, they will try to get you arrested. They will do whatever they feel they can get away with.”

To the broader public, Garvin said that the Church of Scientology will likely try to ingratiate themselves to the community. “They have something called the Safe Point Program, and they will send people from their public relations branch to try and establish good relations with organizations like the police, or get someone hired in local government,” he explained. “They infiltrate and they provide information packs filled with glowing reports of how good they are. They may have been doing this for months if they’ve planned on moving to Guelph.”

VI: So Now What?

Both Roy and Isley are realistic about their goals. “I don’t expect anything from councillors or city hall, it would be nice if they could,” said Isley.

“We’re not going to protest in front of city hall with the expectation they can do anything,” added Roy. “I really think most of them will say, ‘This is a cult’, but I don’t think there’s anything they can do in an official capacity.”

Unofficially, Scientology’s public support looks to continually erode with the internet making it easy for ex-members to organize and share experiences. “It’s a completely different world now,” said Garvin. “There’s the snowballing effect of more and more people speaking out and seeing that the results are less deadly then they were afraid they would be, and that it has more of a positive effect.”

The battle between Scientology and their opponents will be fought primarily beyond Guelph’s borders, but within the Royal City is the pragmatic opinion that the Church is here to stay in town, at least for the next two years.

“We’re not trying to run them out of town,” said Isley, “but we want people to be aware of who they are, what they’re doing, how they work, and what the risk is.”

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