In Hockley Village, a sleepy slice of country about an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto, residents are friendly but private, keeping mainly to themselves.
But that changed when Narconon came to town in late July, with a proposal to buy the sprawling estate of late Conservative MP Donald Blenkarn, and turn it into a private drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.
During the three-hour-long meeting, residents peppered Clark Carr, president of California-based Narconon International, with questions about the controversial rehab program that is based on teachings of the (even more controversial) Church of Scientology.
Carr tried to dispel the notion that rehab facilities are an inherent risk to the community, and espoused the virtues of Narconon’s drug-free program, which he said “has been looked at very carefully in many countries.”
But widespread opposition to the proposal has since made relative strangers into close allies. Petitions have been launched. Letters have been sent to high-placed government officials. A month after Carr’s visit, the village is plastered with red and black “No Narconon in Hockley” signs, on sale for $10 at the general store. (Proceeds go toward fighting the proposal.)
“It’s the No. 1 topic of conversation,” said resident Lisa Caissie. “People stopping in the road, you know what they’re talking about.”
Described online as an “exclusive country estate,” the Blenkarn property spans 150 picturesque acres, a short walk from the quiet village centre, just east of Orangeville. Listed at $2.9 million, it includes five cottages, a lake and an outdoor sauna.
Narconon, which will require a zoning amendment to operate its program, has placed a conditional bid on the property through a holding company in Delaware. The site is one of several being considering “as part of Narconon’s ongoing expansion program,” Carr told the Star. It would be the first in Ontario.
In Hockley, however, residents are readying for battle. Some, including Caissie, simply don’t believe a rehab facility belongs in the family-oriented village, which rarely sees police cruisers and has limited local medical services.
Others have been gripped by an Internet-fuelled panic about Narconon itself. The program, which includes detoxifying sauna sessions and high doses of vitamins, is lauded by famous Scientologists Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley. But the methods have recently come under fire amid lawsuits filed by the families of three Narconon clients who died at a facility in Oklahoma.
“People immediately go onto Wikipedia, and the minute they start reading about Narconon, it just gets really scary,” said resident Harvey Kolodny.
After resident Jamie Thompson heard about the proposal, he went online, and was put off by Scientology techniques like the E-meter, a lie-detecting, thought-tracking device used, according to the church’s website, “to help . . . locate and confront areas of spiritual upset.”
Thompson manages the general store and lives with his young family in a rented house next to the Blenkarn property. He has a “No Narconon” sign at home, but said he is “nervous” about displaying it.
To bolster their position, residents have enlisted the help of David Love, who has campaigned hard against the addictions recovery program since leaving a Narconon facility in Trois-Rivières, where he was a client and worked on staff before it closed last year.
Before being admitted to the program, Love said he was asked to stare into the eyes of a counsellor for hours on end, and identify objects of various colours in a room.
“It’s the most craziest stuff you’ve ever seen,” he said.
Once admitted, Love, who was battling a morphine and cocaine addiction, said he witnessed other clients being taken away in ambulances. He was hired on staff upon graduation with “no training, no nothing,” he said.
According to CBC, a regional health authority in Quebec shuttered the Narconon facility after the methods used at the centre landed at least four clients in hospital.
The health authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Carr tells a much different story. In an email response to questions from the Star, he said the Trois-Rivières facility closed after the province “fundamentally changed its posture toward what kind of drug rehabilitation it would tolerate” to “strictly medical, drug substitution, and so forth.”
Narconon was told it had to reapply for its licence under these new conditions, and the province “made it clear that they would never approve Narconon unless we irreversibly changed our method of treatment,” he said.
Carr disputes the allegation that four clients were taken to hospital due to the techniques used as the centre.
“It is true and appropriate that occasionally someone would be referred to a proper medical authority when and as needed,” he said. “This is what any and all drug rehabs do and are supposed to do. That this was ‘because of Narconon methods’ is a fabrication.”
As part of Narconon’s communication skills course, Carr said, clients “practise the ability to confront another person,” but do not “stare into the eyes of a counsellor for hours at a time.”
Regarding Love being hired without training, Carr said Narconon Trois-Rivières hired its own staff, not Narconon International.
When Narconon accepts recent graduates onto “trainee programs,” they are always put onto a series of staff training steps, he said.
He said the investigations into the deaths at Narconon’s Oklahoma facility are ongoing, but that “there is no evidence whatsoever to support the allegations in the media that vitamins or sauna played any role whatsoever in these incidents.” No charges have been laid.
Narconon staff is trained in emergency medical protocol, and the Hockley facility would have a “properly trained” nurse on site, as well as a consulting medical doctor on the premises, “as needed,” Carr said.
To gain admission to Narconon, clients must be approved by a medical physician “as physically and mentally capable of doing” the program, which is substantiated by scientific evidence, and has produced more than 35,000 graduates since 1995, he said.
“There are certain persons with their own colored histories and agendas who have taken on a campaign against Narconon and also Scientology,” said Carr.
“If there is someone who has a grudge or fixed opinion about Scientology, I sincerely recommend he or she take it up with Church personnel . . . Why anyone would express that he or she is ‘fearful’ is beyond me. We all couldn’t be more open to questions.”
Rev. Yvette Shank, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, said in an email that Narconon “has its origins” in the religious writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but is a “secular” program that “teaches no belief system.”
“Since Narconon’s inception, members of the Church of Scientology world over have supported the organization,” she said. “We are proud of our association with Narconon.”
Shank said the Narconon facility is “completely separate” and “not related” to a future Scientology retreat, envisioned on a nearby property the church purchased in 2009.
The church intends to convert the former Hockley Highlands Inn and Conference Centre into a sprawling retreat with a top-notch café, conference centre and lodge accommodations, with 200 staff members.
A promotional video on the church’s website describes the retreat as “exactly what is required to assist Canadian Scientologists through the ultimate frontier at the top of the bridge to total freedom.”
However, Narconon’s Hockley proposal is hardly a done deal.
Jacquie Tschekalin, director of planning for the township of Adjala-Tosorontio, which includes Hockley Village, said the township has received an application for a zoning amendment to allow a 24-bed residential addiction recovery centre.
Although formal processing (which includes public meetings and ultimately a council vote) has yet to begin, Tschekalin said the township has received dozens of calls from concerned residents, “and lots and lots of email, too.”
Tschekalin also has questions about traffic issues, and the potential strain on local services and the lack of oversight by the province, which does not license private addictions recovery centres.
But the municipality, which currently has no such facilities, “can’t be discriminatory,” she said.
“If we’re going to change the zoning it has to work for everybody regardless of who owns the property.”
Bill Schoenhardt, who is handling the sale on behalf of his sister-in-law, Marguerite Blenkarn, said she decided to sell the property after her husband, “the major patriarch in the family,” passed away last year.
He knows many local residents have questions about the proposal, but said it is not his role “to present or defend a Narconon centre.”
A good portion of the opposition, he suspects, stems from the fact that some people “don’t like anything that’s different.”
“They have their concerns . . . and whether they’re valid concerns, exaggerated concerns or fictitious concerns, they have their right to express them,” he said. “Thank goodness we live in a free country.”
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