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New UCP candidate under fire for link to Christian group's conversion therapy-style programs

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-03-24 Rachel Ward

a man standing in front of a building: Jeremy Wong/Facebook © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Jeremy Wong/Facebook

A newly appointed United Conservative Party candidate strongly denies claims that when he promoted religious sexuality and relationship programming, he was supporting conversion therapy, a widely-discredited practice which aims to turn gay people straight. 

Jeremy Wong joined the race in Calgary-Mountain View on Wednesday.

His predecessor, Caylan Ford, resigned after Facebook messages came to light in which she lamented a double standard for white supremacist terrorists, and questioned the "redeeming values" of Pride parades.

Wong is an ordained minister and a pastor with Calgary Chinese Alliance Church. Conversion therapy is a discredited form of psychotherapy or religious counseling that is banned in some parts of Canada.

His church was listed as a partner of Christian non-profit Journey Canada. The non-profit runs programs for parishioners who are worried about their sexual habits, including if they are attracted to people of the same gender — or "unwanted same-sex attraction," as they call it in online advertising.

Wong once wrote a testimonial praising the group's programs and saying he referred parishioners to the services.

Journey Canada, formally called Living Waters Canada, denies that it offers conversion therapy but activists say its programming on relationships and sexuality is quite similar.

In a statement to CBC, Wong said he attended "some spiritual support groups for adults" and noted he is not formally affiliated with those who run the courses.

"To be clear, I do not and would not support conversion therapy in any form, nor would I participate in such an activity in any way," Wong said in the statement. "I believe that all must be respected and treated with dignity, and that coercion has no place in our society."

"I do not and would not support conversion therapy in any form, nor would I participate in such an activity in any way."- Jeremy Wong

Through a UCP spokesperson, Wong declined an interview, saying he was too busy door-knocking on his first weekend as a candidate.

In spring 2018, CBC News Brunswick reported Journey Canada advertised that its programs reduced the "strength or power" of same-sex attraction.

The group said it aims to help people live in line with its conservative Christian view of sex being only within the confines of a male and female marriage.

'A problem in Alberta,' professor says

Such programs can be harmful to a person's psychological and emotional health, according to MacEwan University professor Kristopher Wells, who studies sexuality and gender.

"I know cases where young people have taken their own lives because they weren't able to find the support that they needed," Wells said. 

"They felt that their families had rejected them and in many cases, their faith had viewed them as broken and unable to be healed. It is a problem, and it's a problem in Alberta."

'Benefited deeply in my soul'

As a pastor, Wong wrote a promotion for the programs that appeared in the 2013 annual report for Living Waters Canada.

"I myself participated in the Living Waters program and have benefited deeply in my soul," Wong was quoted as saying in the report.

"Since then, I have encouraged many church members to attend and I also continue to draw upon the teaching and experience I received in Living Waters into my own ministry context."

The annual report was sent to Alberta media this weekend by the New Democratic Party, which will go head-to-head with the UCP in the provincial election on April 16.

The most recent published annual reports for Journey Canada in 2017 and 2016 list Wong's church as a partner.

Kenney notes religious freedom

The UCP has declined to offer a clear policy position on conversion therapy.

At a rally this weekend in Red Deer, Alta., UCP Leader Jason Kenney was asked about Wong's past association with Journey Canada.

"We do have something called religious freedom in Canada so people are free, in faith communities, to have their own views. In this free country, we don't try to impose those views on other people," Kenney told reporters.

"So I would just say, he's repudiated conversion therapy, he's not been involved in it."

a man wearing a suit and tie: Jeremy Wong/Facebook, Living Waters Canada Annual Report 2013 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Jeremy Wong/Facebook, Living Waters Canada Annual Report 2013

Journey Canada denies offering conversion therapy

Journey Canada states on its website that it is firmly committed to a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality but does not offer nor condone conversion therapy. 

It noted only five per cent of its participants are concerned with so-called unwanted same-sex feelings.

"Journey Canada is a discipleship ministry that is focused on helping people understand their identity in light of their Christian faith," the statement reads.

That statement was posted after a June 2018 CBC report about the group holding a retreatfor spiritual leaders in New Brunswick.

At the time, the group advertised on its websitethat "a majority" of attendees "experience a reduction in the strength or power of same-sex attraction/orientation and increased hope, strength, desire, and ability to live in accordance with their personal beliefs regarding sexual ethics."

The statement, which has since been removed, had the caveat that such changes were "neither [the program's] primary aim nor a litmus test for its success."

Today, the group advertises seminars for parishoners, as well as pastors to help them "walk with those who are experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction and desire to follow Christ in wholeness and integrity."

Jason Kenney standing in front of a brick wall: Terri Trembath/CBC © Terri Trembath/CBC Terri Trembath/CBC

Devon Hargreaves, an LGBT activist who put forward the federal anti-conversion therapy petition, said even if Journey Canada denies doing conversion therapy, he still opposes their current actions. He said he's concerned that an aspiring politician took part in their programs.

"What Journey Canada offers is sexual healing, where it is still under the notion that being queer is wrong," said Hargreaves, who is now a candidate for the Alberta Liberal Party, which is calling for an outright ban of conversion therapy.

Both Hargreaves and Wells say they want to hear a more thorough explanation from Wong about his views on LGBT rights.

a close up of text on a white background: Journey Canada © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Journey Canada

If elected, Wells noted, Wong will have to deal with policy issues like identifying the roles of gay-straight alliances and LGBT-inclusive curriculum materials in Alberta schools.

Wong's statement wasn't sufficient for Wells, who says candidates need to do more than just say they don't support conversion therapy.

"They need to talk about ways in which they plan to support the LGBTQ community," he said.

"And if they can't do that, then they shouldn't be in public office."

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