Jonathan Brower was 20 years old the first time he attended a program operated by Journey Canada. Back in 2005, the organization was known as Living Waters and had rented space for the program from Calgary’s First Alliance Church.
“I can visualize the room and walking up the stairs and the feelings I had every time I went in there and the hope that I would be cured,” Brower said.
Growing up in a Christian church, Brower said he felt he had no choice but to suppress feelings that he was gay. It’s why he says he reached out to Living Waters for help.
Over the course of 10 years, Brower participated in three separate programs.
“I just (kept) going back because it wasn’t working and I thought I had missed something or I wasn’t disciplined enough. I heard that from some of my mentors as well: ‘You’re not disciplined enough, you don’t pray enough, you’re not doing your devotions every day’ — as though that was part of the reason that God hadn’t given me that deliverance,” he explained.
Brower says he was working with Living Waters as a volunteer when he finally decided to leave the program.
“It was causing me to hate myself and my sexuality,” he said.
“I was like, ‘This just doesn’t feel right.’
“I feel like it’s causing me to not want to live, to not want to be here.”
Brower still has some of the program’s reading material and coursework. The 2009 workbook carries the title “Pursuing relational and sexual wholeness in Christ.” In material from 2005, the primary goal of the program is explained as helping participants find “freedom for mature heterosexual relating.”
“It feels like you’re going to church. It feels like you’re meeting a community group and you’re getting group advice, but then you don’t realize that it’s spiritual and emotional trauma that’s happening to you,” said Brower.
Calgary’s First Alliance Church says it does not endorse, support or practise conversion therapy but it did rent its facility to Journey Canada (known then as Living Waters) in 2005.
Global News asked Journey Canada if it has ever operated conversion therapy programs, which try to change sexual orientation through psychological or spiritual interventions.
The organization’s lawyer, Geoffrey Trotter, provided a written statement to Global News saying Journey Canada does not practise conversion therapy and that, “those who participate in Journey Canada programs in relation to sexual orientation/identity issues do so not to deny or change their sexual orientation or gender identity, but to learn to accept who they are.”
The letter also says that since 2017 each program participant has signed a form acknowledging that Journey Canada does not seek to change their sexual orientation.
Sonya Taylor reached out to Living Waters in 2015, she was in her 30s and living in Vancouver at the time. As a Christian, Taylor says she felt conflicted about her own feelings of attraction to people of the same sex.
“I made an appointment with a lady at Living Waters and had a chat with her, and she shared some of her own story with same-sex attraction and how she had kind of been healed from that,” Taylor recalled.
She says she saw the counselor for three years and attended a weekly program with Living Waters for several weeks.
“It was communicated more one on one than out in public that something was broken within me, that I needed healing and, therefore, the program itself could bring me through a process towards sexual wholeness, and that sexual wholeness (was) being heterosexual,” Taylor explained.
She says she left the program feeling anxious and depressed.
“There were feelings of, ‘This can’t go on. I can’t go on living like this,’” she said.
In Canada, there is a growing call to ban conversion therapy. Bans are already in place in Ontario, and momentum appears to be building. Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island have already imposed some restrictions and bans on conversion therapy. B.C. is exploring restrictions as well. Journey Canada says none of its programs breach any conversion therapy bans in Canada.
On Monday, city councillors in St. Albert, Alta., became the first municipality in the province to pass a motion to curb conversion therapy there.
The motion states: “Conversion therapy is not a lawful business activity in St. Albert, and no business licence shall be issued for any person or organization that has conversion therapy as part of its business activities.”
Sen. Serge Joyal believes changes need to be made Canada-wide, which is why the Montreal senator is seeking changes to Canada’s Criminal Code.
Earlier this year, he introduced federal legislation that would amend the Criminal Code to criminalize advertising conversion therapy, which is defined in the bill as any practice to eliminate or reduce sexual attraction between persons of the same sex. It would also make it illegal to receive any financial or material benefit for offering conversion therapy services to children.
“We know (conversion therapy) exists, especially in Western Canada, from various religious groups,” said Joyal.
“I think this is something that is abhorrent, and it should be prohibited. I think that anyone can have any religious belief he or she wants to entertain but not at the expense of what we call human dignity and human equality.”
Browers says he’s hopeful this bill will pass for the sake of other vulnerable members of the LGBTQ2 community.
“If I could spare myself the pain and the trauma — spare that for anyone else — in a heartbeat, I would do that.”
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