God keeps our land glorious and… strange

Alternative title: God dammit, Canada!

A few weeks back I highlighted one of those quirky ‘statistical finding turned news story’ articles that showed how very secular Canada is (despite stupidly forgetting to analyse it from a racial perspective). I would never want anyone to get the impression that somehow religion doesn’t crop up in our public life. It absolutely does. It’s just that, usually, when it happens, it’s more bizarrely strange than anything else:

A case of what is being called possible demonic possession in Saskatoon has prompted local church officials to consider the need for an exorcist. CBC News spoke with a Catholic priest involved in the case, which arose in March, and agreed not to identify participants in order to protect their privacy. According to church officials, a priest was called to a Saskatoon home by a woman who said her uncle showed signs of being possessed by the devil. The woman believed a priest’s blessing could help the distraught man.

This. Actually. Happened.

Now, the strange part of this is not necessarily that someone thought that a family member was possessed. That certainly is strange, but depending on a number of cultural and educational factors (we don’t know anything about this family), it might not be so totally beyond the pale that someone believes in demons. The weird part is that the priest went along with it. Priests are not uneducated people, and anyone with a spoonful of brains knows to call for a psychiatrist when someone presents with symptoms of ‘demonic possession’.

It gets stranger still, because it wasn’t just one nutjob priest who took the idea of demons too seriously:

Bishop Don Bolen explained that the ritual of exorcism is a very structured exercise. He said it was not clear if the Saskatoon man was possessed or experiencing a mental breakdown. Church leaders in Saskatoon have been considering whether Saskatoon needs a trained exorcist. The last person in the city with formal training, Rev. Joseph Bisztyo, retired in 2003. Nor does the Regina archdiocese have an exorcist, so Bolen said they are looking to other locations.

This isn’t a bunch of careful deliberation over the best way to reach out to the family in their time of need, nor is it a question of how best to address a clear case of mental illness… they’re looking for a trained exorcist. I don’t know how this could possibly be any weirder. In a country with comprehensive education in science, among a class of people who are ostensibly educated enough to know that demons aren’t really actual physical things that inhabit people’s bodies. But instead, we have an archdiocese going on an exorcist hunt.

Luckily, CFI is on the case:

Centre for Inquiry spokesman Justin Trottier says that scares him more than demonic possession. He says exorcisms have worsened existing medical conditions, caused bodily harm, and have occasionally resulted in death. Most cases of claimed demonic possession are, in fact, mental conditions that need medical treatment. “We have individuals performing essentially psychiatric, psychological or medical treatments of some kind,” he said. “They’re obviously not regulated by any real authority, and we don’t quite know what they’re doing.”

Words fail me.

Hey here’s a question. What do you call it when a school board, the law, religious groups and parents all agree on an issue? Apparently, you call it a fight worthy of extra security:

Extra security will be on hand when a public school board in southern Ontario takes a final vote tonight on whether to ban free handouts of Gideon Bibles. Based on previous votes, Bluewater District trustees are expected to put an end to the handouts to Grade 5 students by barring distribution of all non-instructional religious materials. The issue has sparked heated emotions, with some trustees receiving threats and hate mail.

Taking away Gideon Bibles? Oh shit… the Gideons must be pissed to get shoved out of the schools, thus missing out on the opportunity to convert all those impressionable youngsters. No wonder they need extra security – the Gideons are probably calling for blood:

The local chapter of Gideons International in Canada and some church elders have distanced themselves from those who accuse trustees of “unCanadian” and “unChristian” behaviour. Gideons International in Canada said the organization would take a ban with “complete acceptance.”

Huh. Christians turning the other cheek. Who’da thunk?

So who’s been getting all hot under the collar then?

The invective of those opposed to the ban unnerved some trustees of the Bluewater board, which has more than 18,000 students in 53 schools. Chairwoman Jan Johnstone said Monday that a recent article by The Canadian Press on the torrent of hate mail directed at trustees, some of it racist, prompted a new wave of correspondence.

Ah, yes. It’s exactly the people you’d expect. The right-wing racist nutjob Christians who make the news because they shout the loudest over any perceived slight to their domination of the cultural landscape. Luckily, this time it seems they didn’t get away with it:

This time, however, Ms. Johnstone said correspondents from across Canada and the United States were by and large “overwhelmingly supportive” of the pending ban.

The ban, incidentally, passed without incident.

One more story. So as odd as it may seem to pretty much everyone I’ve ever spoken to, Scientology actually has centres in Canada. In fact, there is a large facility right here in Vancouver. Is it just a coincidence that they used to film The X Files here, or is it a plot from Lord Xenu himself? No one knows*. Anyway, Scientology lives and breathes here in Canada, much to the chagrin of the Keller family:

In December, [Yvonne] Keller paid $10,000 to send her 22-year-old son Daniel to a Trois-Rivières treatment centre, which is part of the Narconon group. Its website does not make it obvious, however, Narconon uses the teachings of Scientology in its treatment facilities. It has former addicts in every Canadian city answering the crisis lines and doing intakes. Narconon has several facilities worldwide, but the main one in Canada is in Trois-Rivières.

A week after her son arrived at the treatment centre, Narconon staff rejected him from the program and put him on a bus back to Toronto, penniless and alone. Keller hasn’t been able to get her money back and said her son is now back on the street.

This story is actually not so much strange as it is infuriating. Scientology is a fun cult to laugh at, with their extra-crazy beliefs and silly antics, but that overlooks the stories like this, where the CoS defrauds people of their money and puts them at risk of serious harm. The facility claims that they couldn’t treat him because he was clearly psychotic (and they are set up to treat addiction, not other types of mental illness), but instead of calling the police or getting him admitted to hospital, or even calling his mom, they simply pocketed the money and put Daniel back on a bus. At least in the shameful light of publicity that the facility has received from this story, Yvonne Keller will be refunded her money. Frustratingly, there will likely be no other consequences to this story.

So yeah – Canada has religious problems and controversy, but ours is slightly… weird.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

*Actually, it is just a coincidence, and everyone knows.


  1. ischemgeek says

    Gideon bibles? Yeah. I remember that in school. Showing up to class and having a Bible on my desk, telling the teacher that I don’t want it and that she could keep it, and being told I was being ungrateful and should thank them for the gift, then being kept in for detention when I refused, then having a bunch of classmates give me a hard time for making a big deal of it and for being pushy about being non-Christian. Because forcing a religious text on a kid is charity, but refusing that same text is pushiness. Right. Some variation on that played out every year in elementary school.

    Thankfully in high school they just put a box of them in front of the principle’s office and said anyone who wanted one could grab one. The box stayed conspicuously full most years.

    Anyway, I’m glad they’re banning it. I don’t want religion in with my secular schooling.

  2. Gregory in Seattle says

    If someone handed me a Bible, I would confirm that it is, in fact, mine, then proceed to demonstrate my contempt of it. Hey, it’s my book: if I want to rip out pages and use them as toilet paper, I can.

  3. crayzz says

    We had people handing out bibles at our high school. It wasn’t in class or anything, they were only allowed to stand at the entrance to the school grounds and offer them, and they never pushed if you said no, though I don’t know if this was them being polite or them trying to give no reason for complaints against them. I took one ’cause I figured if I had one I might actually read it, just to see what the damn thing says. I still haven’t gotten around to it yet. The most useful thing that bible has done for me was to act as a counter weight in a Rube-Goldberg machine I had to build in grade 11 physics.

  4. says

    I went to Catholic grade school here in Saskatoon in the ’70s. We were given Gideon Bibles one year.
    (Catholic schooling, as far as I can tell, was pretty much like that in the non-religious public system here, other than Catholic bits like mass being thrown in.)

  5. says

    I’m not so down on the priest (the coverage is a bit ambiguous on exactly what he was thinking) as I am on the higher-ups who are looking for an exorcist. If I were faced with an agitated, distressed, self-harming individual, I would probably 1) call 911 and 2) say or do any damn thing I could think of to keep the victim calm until the professionals arrived and took over. If the guy is religious, play along — it would probably not be a good occasion to whip out a copy of Demon-Haunted World and start teaching him elementary skepticism ;-).

  6. Desert Son, OM says

    Rev. Joseph Bisztyo, retired in 2003

    I find it amusing that exorcism is something one “retires” from, like it’s a job. After a while you stop doing it, get a watch at the send-off party, take up gardening. It casts the whole nonsense of souls in an even more ludicrous light. Human souls are dreadfully important, so important that they need to be defended from the machinations of the most evil force of all time with special powers and rituals!

    … except when you’ve clocked out after 5 p.m. Then, please call the help line at the following number, and leave a message. The next available soul-defender will follow up with you within 10 business days.

    Still learning,


  7. Pascale says

    I’m not sure what the distribution is in other provinces, but it would seem there are quite a few (of?) Jehova’s Witnesses in BC. It’s quite common for me to exit the skytrain and be met by a stereotypical old white dude with “Awake” pamphlets. More recently they’ve taken to having a child beside them also handing out pamphlets (poor kid).

    Anyway, I suppose my point is – I haven’t read many articles pertaining specifically to JWs. Is it a BC thing?

  8. says

    I don’t have any more frequent interactions with JWs in BC than I did when I lived in Ontario. They don’t come up in the news much either, so they’re sort of off my radar.

  9. jamessweet says

    I’m not tremendously surprised about the exorcism thing. IIRC, the Vatican is making a concerted effort to make sure the exorcism doesn’t fade away entirely. It was in the news a while back… that they were worried all the people who knew how to do it were retiring or dying off, that it was an important thing that not be lost, etc…. it only makes sense that there’d be pressure filtering down to the front lines to make more diagnoses of possession.

  10. Vicki says

    I thought I remembered reading about that centre: Quebec health officials have shut it down though as of last week there were no plans to decertify Narconon as a whole.

  11. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Priests are not uneducated people, and anyone with a spoonful of brains knows to call for a psychiatrist when someone presents with symptoms of ‘demonic possession’.

    Decades ago – mid-1970s – I participated in an exorcism of sorts that had been arranged by the young woman’s psychiatrist. (full up board certified)

    1 – She believed, firmly believed, in voodoo hexes and “working roots”, and the efficacy of imprecatory prayer.
    2 – She was suffering from severe anxiety about a curse she had had cast against her. It was severe enough to be messing with her biologically, sort of a permanent anxiety attack, with rising stress hormone levels and heart palpitations and blood pressure. She was scaring herself, if not to death, at least into a decline.

    So the experienced, Jewish psychiatrist did what he knew would be quickly effective. He called in a specialist – a local sheriff who was reputed to be an extremely powerful roots worker. They needed a second female (for balance and also as chaperone) knew I was Buddhist and not susceptible to voodoo and not going to freak out about being asked to help out.

    So the shrink, the sheriff, the woman and I had a very nice, very symbolic ceremony on a spit of sand where she helped the tide come in and wash over her curse, wiping it out and taking it away.

    She was still in need of psychiatry – but she wasn’t in fear of being hexed or having the hex come true.

    She was not the first patient that the psychiatrist had de-hexed. He pragmatically realized that if the belief system was strong enough for the hex to be having an effect, de-hexing and laying a protective counter-hex was going to work. Then he could get down to counseling and real therapy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *