The Small Canadian College Town Home To An Anti-LGBTQ Media Empire And COVID Conspiracists

Once a sanctuary for those fleeing the coming Y2K collapse, a small Ontario town has become a breeding ground for far-right conspiracy theories.

Hazel Woodrow
Canadian Anti-Hate Network


Source: Instagram


Two hours west of Ottawa, near the mouth of the Madawaska River, on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg and Huron-Wendat Peoples, sits a cluster of communities that many Catholic locals sincerely believe are under special divine protection. In the shadow of the Canadian Shield, on the banks of Kamaniskeg Lake, with villages scattered through the deep woods, it’s not hard to imagine how many Catholics flocked to the area in preparation for a Y2K calamity that never materialized. 

Twenty-one years later, the Madawaska Valley is reckoning with the response of many residents in the community to the very real calamity of COVID-19; namely, those involved in a trifecta of local traditionalist Catholic thought and action – Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, LifeSiteNews, and Catholic Insight magazine

In his piece in The Madawaska Valley Current, Mark Woermke voiced his concern that the area is “quickly becoming a centre of something – something more disturbing and damaging to our reputation than a child in the 1970s could have ever imagined – a centre of right-wing conspiracy theories.”

The Township of Madawaska Valley is made up of three population centres – Combermere, Barry’s Bay, and Wilno. Many of the Catholic residents refer to it as “Our Lady’s Valley,” a name coined by Catherine Doherty, a Russian Catholic social worker who founded Madonna House, the local lay apostolate.

Source: Facebook

The Valley is considered by many to be the ostensible headquarters of the ultra-traditionalist LifeSiteNews; home to its founder John-Henry Westen, editor Pete Baklinski, former reporter Lianne Laurence, and contributors John Paul Meenan and Michael O’Brien, among others. 

The conspiratorial COVID-denialism, blatant anti-LGBTQ2+ rhetoric, and insular religiosity espoused by the site and those in its orbit have been felt by the township for almost a year now, and the community is growing restless.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has reported that LifeSiteNews is basically a Christian version of Breitbart News that claims to reach 20 million readers a year with anti-LGBTQ+ screeds and far-right conspiracy theories about the rigged election, “leftist agitators'' in the crowd at the Capitol, and COVID-19 being a bioweapon.  

In the time since we last covered LifeSiteNews, they have published dozens of articles and blog posts, including a celebratory interview with far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos; and an open letter in which the dissident Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò claimed that the countless doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients are guilty of “execrable complicity” in “provoking thousands of deaths not from COVID, as we are told by the mainstream media, but from incorrect treatment.”

In 2019, researchers at the Carleton University Spatial Determinants of Health Lab, Alexa Mahling, Michelle LeBlanc, and Paul Peters, conducted a community engagement workshop with residents of Madawaska Valley to learn more about the community’s health care needs. 

They found that while residents reported numerous strengths of their community, including that they appreciated the tight-knit social structure of the community, women residents identified “that they have trouble making headway in many initiatives because most community groups are controlled and led by men.” 

LifeSiteNews is also not the only traditionalist Catholic presence in the area. 

Barry’s Bay is home to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College (SWC). The college, which bills itself as a “faithful Catholic institution… where all the professors are faithful to the Magisterium,” was accredited to confer Bachelor of Catholic Studies degrees in 2017. SWC’s status as a degree-granting institution was approved by PEQAB despite its authoritarian Student Code of Conduct, which includes (among many others) prohibitions against “blasphemy,” bikinis, skirt hems above the knee, yoga pants, “profane” or “lewd” music, drunkenness, and at the time of accreditation, “all romantic displays of affection on campus” including hand holding (as of 2021, hand holding is permitted).


While Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College states on its website that it receives no government funding, the institution claimed $117,019 under the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, and has been receiving OSAP funding through its students since 2019. Likewise, LifeSiteNews also claimed the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

SWC was the only Canadian school named in the National Catholic Register's "Catholic Identity College Guide," in part due to their prohibition against "objectionable clubs," including "LGBT-related clubs.”

James DiFiore for The Madawaska Valley Current wrote in mid-September, just weeks after the beginning of the school year, that SWC “is being criticized as some of its students are perceived to be consistently flouting mandatory mask requirements while in public spaces.” DiFiore found that much of the criticism occurred online, with local residents concerned that students’ flouting of public health measures like masking and social distancing, puts vulnerable residents at risk - over a third of the people living in Madawaska Valley are seniors.

At time of writing, the area is experiencing an outbreak, with three students from Madawaska Valley District High School testing positive within five days. The Renfrew County District Health Unit attributed the outbreak to a violation of public health guidelines: “All three of the confirmed cases attended the same social gathering outside of the school day. This is a result of community transmission and disregard for public health guidelines to restrict social groupings to a minimum size.”

There is significant overlap between LifeSiteNews and SWC: SWC refers to LifeSiteNews co-founder John Henry Westen as a “friend” of the school; former reporter Lianne Laurence is the SWC Registrar and Privacy Officer; senior editor Peter Baklinski studied at SWC’s forerunner, Mater Ecclesia Study Center, and has been a guest lecturer at the college; contributor and advisor Michael O’Brien is the current Artist and Writer in Residence at the college and his wife Sheila sits on the Board of Directors. 

Additionally, LifeSiteNews Canada board member, Jim Hughes, a founder of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), and president of the organization when it started LifeSiteNews in 1997, sits on the regional advisory board for SWC. 

The overlap between LifeSiteNews and SWC is also ideological. 

John Paul Meenan, a LifeSiteNews contributor, was one of the founders of SWC, served as its initial Executive Director, and is currently an assistant professor of theology at the school. Meenan is also the editor of Catholic Insight, a magazine that was the subject of a Human Rights Commission complaint in 2008 (several years before Meenan became the editor) for allegedly promoting hatred against gays and lesbians. 

Catholic Insight, like LifeSiteNews, has its roots tightly bound to Campaign Life Coalition. Its founder, Father Alphonse de Valk was considered the “in house chaplain” at Campaign Life Coalition for many years. Father de Valk launched Catholic Insight using the subscription list from The Interim, CLC’s newspaper, which he had been the editor of for five years. During that time, LifeSiteNews founder Steve Jalsevac recalls that Father de Valk “published so many articles on homosexuality that we had to repeatedly urge him to cut way back on it because of the numerous complaints being received.”

After Father deValk left the magazine in 2012, SWC biology professor, David Beresford, took over the role of editor. 

In 2018, Meenan delivered a faculty presentation on a book by the rabid antisemite and traditionalist Catholic, E. Michael Jones. In a response to CAHN’s request for comment, Meenan said: “I write about many people about whose views on other issues I know little, and with what little I do know I may disagree strongly – from H.G. Wells, to Margaret Sanger, to Ray Kurzweil and any number of others. Of course, I do not share, and would disagree vehemently, with antisemitism.”

In July 2020, LifeSiteNews published an article by Meenan that included numerous anti-mask arguments. He argued that Occam’s Razor dictates that “the truth tends to be simple and, we may add, beautiful” and therefore “when an action or practice seems aesthetically unappealing, it often means there is something wrong with it,” concluding that masking is morally wrong because it covers “God’s image.” He invoked the thoroughly debunked claim that masks cause us to inhale our own carbon dioxide. And he concluded by alluding to the idea that masking is not only a goal of “atheistic communism,” but that it may be a practice prophesied through Our Lady of Fatima – a vision of the Virgin Mary that included apocalyptic prophecies of communism spreading throughout the world.

Many more articles against masking and other public health measures have been published on Catholic Insight, under Meenan’s editorship, including several by Meenan himself.

Meenan told CAHN that he is “not a ‘COVID-19’ skeptic” and that he perceives public health recommendations “which are treated as though they were coercive laws...to be a disproportionate response to COVID, including universal lockdowns and a repression of constitutional rights.”

Furthermore, while most colleges and universities transitioned to online classes in September 2020 (with exceptions for practical learning), SWC opened its doors to students, and drew “a number of students who otherwise would have gone elsewhere.”

Local residents have expressed concern not just about the presence of students from outside their small community (including many from outside the country), but about the students’ conduct, particularly surrounding public health measures.

In early February, SWC student Gabriel O’Brien co-organized a protest in Barry’s Bay made up in equal parts of SWC students and residents of the nearby Killaloe (many of whom were from the homeschooling community) against COVID-19 regulations and “government hypocrisy.”

In an interview with Barry Conway of The Eganville Leader at the demonstration, O’Brien made numerous unfounded and debunked allegations about COVID-19 and public health measures, including that Health Canada “says the moment you touch your mask, its efficacy plummets to zero per cent.” 

O’Brien’s co-organizer from Kilalloe, Devin Barker added: “We’re protesting against the mask mandate and the lockdown. That’s what we are here for. We are not going to get involved in the science of it, but the fact of the matter is we are protesting. Many businesses are being crushed; people are being sent home from work, suicide hotline rates have gone up, people are stressed out by it.”

A petition calling for SWC to “expel students not following COVID-19 protocols” was created shortly after the protest.

The demonstration and petition prompted Dr. Christine Schintgen, interim president of SWC to submit a letter to the editor which was published by The Madawaska Valley Current, which included a commendation to the demonstrators for “keeping the protest peaceful.”

Two weeks later, SWC published an official question and answer statement regarding COVID-19.

“SWC is made up of a diverse group of people. We do not all think alike on any issue, and COVID-19 is no exception,” SWC wrote, addressing if the college subscribes to “alternative” coronavirus theories. “However, SWC as an institution does not subscribe to any theories about COVID-19. We are simply committed to following the legislation and being in compliance as any college or university in Ontario is expected to do.”

To the question “Doesn’t one of the college’s professors write articles that are anti-mask and anti-lockdown?” SWC responded: “Yes, but he does not do so in his capacity as professor of the College. As an institution we believe in academic freedom (it’s one of our institutional commitments), and we have strongly upheld that principle over the years. We believe that if freedom of thought and expression are suppressed unduly, the whole society suffers. People, including those who work at the College, should be able to explore ideas freely and come to the truth of matters without fear of reprisals. 

“Nevertheless, that does not mean that as an institution we endorse all the views expressed by our employees when they are speaking outside their role at SWC. In short, SWC does not endorse the views of this professor as expressed in his online magazine.”

However, in contrast to their alleged commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of expression, SWC considers “blasphemous language” and “Counselling, participating in, or procurement of induced abortion” to be offences for which staff could face disciplinary measures.

“We are a Catholic liberal arts college that is faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. We do not align ourselves with any other institution or ideology,” Dr. Schintgen wrote in response to a request for comment. “Our staff and faculty are a diverse group of people representing various expressions of the faith.” 

 

Follow Hazel on Twitter at @woodrow_hazel

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Madawaska Valley was 2 hours east of Ottawa. It is 2 hours west of Ottawa. We apologize for this error. 

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