Former Orangeville-area resort to become Scientology headquarters

The Toronto Star/March 15, 2011

Hidden behind a thick wall of trees atop the Niagara Escarpment just north of Toronto, the Church of Scientology is building a massive retreat where believers will "journey through the advanced realms" of their faith.

The facility, which includes more than 80 hectares and five buildings that total around 160,000 square feet, will serve as Scientology's national headquarters when it opens next year.

The organization will upgrade the former Hockley Highlands Inn and Conference Centre in Mono, just northeast of Orangeville, which it purchased in 2009.

But a former member of the church says the isolated location will make it difficult for believers living there to leave if they want to.

Adam Holland, 22, said he wants "to educate local residents to be ready to help out anyone who does escape." He has picketed the site and plans to do so again as it nears completion.

Design plans, available on Scientology's website, feature "first-class" lodge accommodations, a luxurious conference centre and a café. It will house as many as 200 permanent staff members.

"All told, it's exactly what is required to assist Canadian Scientologists through the ultimate frontier at the top of the bridge to total freedom," a narrator says during a five-minute video on the website.

The Church of Scientology lists 8,500 churches, missions and groups in 165 countries, including most major Canadian cities.

The faith, which boasts celebrity followers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, is often accused of exploiting its followers for financial gain and is criticized for its controversial beliefs, including its public rejection of psychiatry.

The New Yorker magazine recently featured an article on Oscar-winning screenwriter and London, Ont., native Paul Haggis, who had a high-profile split from Scientology. In many ways, his reported experience mirrored the claims of Holland, who recently defected from the faith after being raised a Scientologist.

Holland volunteered at the church's Toronto centre for two years before leaving.

"They did everything within the threshold of the law ... to prevent me from going," Holland said of his time living and working at the Toronto centre where he said he was made to work 18 hours a day. He noted the pressure to remain was never physical, but strongly psychological.

Holland said he was disciplined by the church because his sales of founder L. Ron Hubbard's books were too low, and because he passed a message along to a woman in the church from a sister who had left Scientology.

He received a "suppressive person declare" last year, which essentially exiled him from the church and its members, including his father, Paul. Reached by phone, Paul Holland said his son "needs to grow up," but declined to discuss details of his faith.

Scientology's Toronto church directed questions about Holland's allegations and the new facility to its national office. Pat Felske, public affairs director for the church in Toronto, said officials were occupied with celebrations of Hubbard's 100th birthday and would be available to comment in person on Tuesday.

The church has, however, publicly denied Holland's allegations and maintains that anyone is free to leave.

Scientology is considered a non-profit organization in Ontario, said Felske. It is not listed as a charitable organization with the Canada Revenue Agency.

The Bruce Trail runs through the wooded property, and there have been online reports that the church will ask to have the scenic route moved, which is completely within a private land owner's rights.

The Bruce Trail Conservancy said it has not received a Scientology request to move the trail.

Fred Nix, a member of Mono's township council, said it has never discussed the Scientology facility.

"Up here we also have a monastery, a tai chi centre, and a Boy Scout camp, so if they obey the law and pay their taxes I'm happy."

With files from Jim Wilkes

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