Isolated mind-renewal program, and hideout for an alleged child sexual-abuser; inside a Sask. cult’s religious discipline center.

“Hey Mark…come with me”

Warning: The contents of this post include distressing details.

Reading time: approx. 3 minutes.

It was March 25, 1997. I was a 15-year-old student at Christian Centre Academy where I’d attended since I was 9 in 1991.

It was a typical Tuesday school day as I sat at my carrel office in the classroom facing the wall doing my schoolwork. There was only an hour or so of school left. I felt someone tap my shoulder and I turned to find Shian Klassen who was the youth pastor of the church and a “teacher” at the school. “Hey Mark…come with me”, he said. Like an obedient church-school student, I answered “yes sir” and got up from my desk. I pushed my chair in and nodded a smile to my teacher Duff Friesen as Shian Klassen walked me out of the classroom. Little did I know, that would be the last time I would ever see the inside of a high school classroom. He led me down the school hallway and down the main stairs, but then stopped as we rounded the landing. I was confused as he opened the door to the adjoining Christian Centre church offices and led me inside. We went a few steps down a hallway of offices I’d never seen before, then he stopped at an office door. As Shian Klassen led me inside the office, I read the name on the door. A wave of panic flooded me as I realized we were entering Pastor’s office!

Little did I know, that would be the last time I would ever see the inside of a high school classroom.

Pastor Keith Johnson and the church’s school director, Ken Schultz, were seated there along with a stranger. The stranger was built like an old football line-backer, wearing a jean jacket that looked like something a biker would wear. Pastor told me to take a seat on a nearby couch as Shian Klassen closed the door behind us and seated himself. I was terrified – I was inexplicably in Pastor’s office face-to-face with the highest ranking officials in our church and school! I felt my face go white and I started to tremble. I had never been in a church “counseling session” before, but I had my suspicion that nothing good was about to happen. Pastor introduced me to the stranger; Rev. Jim Lee who opened a new Canaan Land Bible Training Centre in Big River, Sk in ’93 with our church’s help.

Keith Johnson, Ken Schultz, Jim Lee, Shian Klassen.

I recognized the Canaan Land program (pronounced “KAY-nuhn”) as a place where “bad” men like biker gang-members and drug addicts go to get rehabilitated using religion. It had its own stigma, as I recalled that a couple of men from our church went to its USA location for life-controlling issues. Pastor, Ken Schultz, and Shian Klassen then took multiple turns insisting that they wanted me to go there, and that it would be a great place for me. Pastor told me it “was part of God’s will for my life” and that I needed it. I was shocked and confused by the entire notion of it; I didn’t want or ask to go to a place like that or anywhere else. Nobody else at school had to go there. I wasn’t some 15-year-old biker or an addict by any stretch of the imagination – I was just a normal teenager living at home with my family going to school with my classmates. For what felt like an eternity, they talked and pressured me.

I recognized the Canaan Land program as a place where “bad” men like bikers and drug addicts go to get rehabilitated using religion.

Eventually their barrage of persuasion stopped and Pastor was looking at me for an answer. I was so far in panic and confusion that I could barely understand what they were just telling me. All I could think of was to tell them that I wanted to talk to my parent about it first, so that I could explain what on earth just happened and that I didn’t want anything like this. Pastor abruptly dismissed my request, saying that he “already checked with” my parent and that “they agreed with” the idea of me going. It turns out that wasn’t exactly true; years later my parent told me, “They never really talked to me about it. They just made the decision for me and did it and that was it. But they never talked to me about it“. I shrunk deeper into my seat as I realized I wasn’t being asked – this was some bizarre thing I was being “volun-told” to do. In Pastor’s system, submissive obedience to him and his elders was expected and trained into us as kids in the church and its school. The school ritually paddled us students to reinforce our instant obedience.

Example page of Christian Centre Academy’s handwritten records of paddling me. Here they detail a streak of paddling me every week for 5 weeks. 14 ‘swats’ on the rear with a wooden board were documented on just the first page.
Brunelle, of Christian Centre Academy, smugly brandishing a wooden paddle in Maclean’s national magazine in 1997.

On top of that, I knew that my single-parent was a devout congregant who always does what Pastor counsels them to do. He was infamous for exiling people and splitting up families who disobeyed him or spoke up, which included losing this entire church-community support-system he made us all dependent on. My sibling and I were children of one of those single-parent families because our parents split up over the church’s controversial teachings on spanking infants. Plus, we didn’t want to risk ending up outside God’s will or handed over to Satan for disobeying Pastor and the elders by being rebellious. It was 4 adult “spiritual-fathers” vs. me, and my past 6 years in this school proved that non-compliance was outright painful. In that moment I would have done or said anything to make the pressure stop. My brain felt paralyzed with fear but yet I heard myself mumble a hesitant “o-okay”. Pastor snatched up the phone on his desk and dialed my parent. “He agreed”, he told them. He asked them to pick me up right away to take me home to pack so Rev. Lee can get me in an hour.

Pastor snatched up the phone on his desk and dialed my parent. “He agreed”, he told them.

My parent arrived a couple of minutes later. We lived only a few blocks away from the church/school, so the pick-up and drive home was a brief blur. My parent told me how pleased they were that I was submitting to God’s will by obeying Pastor, but I could tell they were deeply conflicted inside. We had no idea how long of a stay I should pack for, so I folded up a week’s worth of clothes into a suitcase along with my toothbrush. An hour later, Rev. Lee and his wife drove up to my home to pick me up. As I stepped into their SUV with my luggage, Ken Schultz dropped off a box of my ACE PACEs and score-keys so I could continue my schooling while away. 3 hours of driving later, it was already dark when we arrived at a small clearing in the forest outside Big River. For the record, there is no river there. It’s just almost surrounded by lakes. I was shown into a mobile home unit and met the staff and the other 2 participants there. It was late, so I was shown to the dorm room I’d be sharing with a roommate and told to just settle in for the night. For the most obvious of reasons, I didn’t sleep that night.

Canaan Land Bible Training Centre, 125 acres in the forest by Big River, Sask.
Google Maps location: https://goo.gl/maps/MtuVdfKbWwsRBMrC8
Imagery CNES / Airbus, Maxar Technologies, Map data

The next morning, I went through an intake and onboarding process and was informed about what I was apparently committing to. This was an intensive 1-year-long faith-based residency program designed to disciple grown men who have addictions or other life-controlling problems. I would not be able to freely see my friends, schoolmates, or family except on special occasions. One 30-minute monitored phone call to my parent was allowed on each weekend, contingent on good behavior. I would have to do my schoolwork there, plus lumberjacking and other work duties. My entire daily routine would be controlled and monitored according to the program. They referred to their program as “the Navy Seals of Christianity” where in just 1 year they would indoctrinate me with the equivalent of what an average church attender would get in a 30-year period. I would be on a “journey of dying to myself” in a one-step process of “renewing my mind“.

“What the hell is going on?! And why me!?” I thought to myself. I had no idea they wanted me to be there for so long, isolated, in a physically controlled and disciplined environment. I desperately asked if I can call my parent or Pastor or Shian Klassen to ask if I could go back home. Shian Klassen was the only one who answered the phone. He listened for a bit, then explained that I can’t go back home without consequences to me and my parent. He told me how Pastor wants me to be there, and that my parent wouldn’t want to “disobey” him by allowing me back in their home against Pastor’s direction – especially after already agreeing to it. I pleaded and asked if we can do anything other than this weird one-year extreme isolation thing. This was Pastor Johnson’s son-in-law, so he wasn’t budging a bit. The despair of my situation set in as I now realized I was trapped there for an entire year of my life. I, a youth who loved libraries and computers, was in the middle of the Saskatchewan forest in the custody of a big stranger who looks like an ex-linebacker. Facing me on the other side of this bizarre ultimatum was leaving and going back…nowhere? I was still shocked by this news that I apparently didn’t have a home and school willing to welcome me back! In that moment my will was broken.

In that moment my will was broken.

Our daily routine was controlled every hour of our day and night. Evangelical religion was involved all throughout, and everyone was required to follow the same daily regiment:

  • 7:00am: Awake and confess scriptural affirmations.
  • 7:30am: Breakfast.
  • 8:00am: Perform corporate praying in tongues and worship.
  • 9:00am: Sermons.
  • 10:00am: Group Bible-study sessions.
  • 12:00pm: Lunch.
  • 1:00pm: I did my ACE PACE schoolwork for 2 hours. Adults went straight to work duties.
  • 3:00pm: Work duties of lumberjacking, groundskeeping, or snow clearing.
  • 6:00pm: Supper.
  • 8:00pm: Either Bible study, Christian book reading, or corporate prayer and worship.
  • 11:00pm: Lights-out.

Friday nights we got to call home and watch a movie. On Saturday and Sunday the routine mostly revolved around the multi-hour trip to the city for weekend church services.

The participant lodge of Canaan Land Ministries Canada. Closed permanently in 1999.

In addition to the routine, there were strict rules that resembled a detention center or gulag prison:

  • You have to agree to participate with everything religious and program-based.
  • You have to stay on the premises.
  • You cannot phone or visit anyone outside the program, except for calling a family member once a weekend for 30 mins via a monitored phone call.
  • You can write and receive unlimited letters, but they will be screened by staff.
  • Family can visit on special occasions if preapproved.
  • You have to embrace Jesus Christ and the religion of evangelical Christianity.
  • Only pre-approved books, videos, or music are allowed. No radio or TV allowed.
  • You can’t swear, talk negatively, or talk about your past.
  • You have to keep all personal and shared areas clean and orderly.
  • You can’t possess more than 1 dollar.
  • You have to share a dorm room with another participant.
  • You have to limit your shower to 3-mins.

Trapped in this isolated place with no way to leave, I fully complied and submitted to everything they expected of me. The initial shock and homesickness was incredibly difficult to suppress in a place where privacy didn’t exist, but eventually it blurred into the mind-numbing routine that repeated itself every single day. When you’re age 15, time feels like it goes by slow enough; it crawled by even slower in my repetitive state of programming, depression, and mandatory participation in evangelical religious activities. Performing non-stop for so long to every aspect of the program and religion under supervision was mentally exhausting. Lumberjacking in the thick Saskatchewan bush was backbreaking work. Winter was particularly miserable because we were dragging a literal ton of trees and logs through yards of deep snow. Zero opportunities were provided for my legitimate physical education and other educational interests like arts or sciences or even meaningful socialization. The feature (or vulnerability) of the ACE and SAICS education system that enabled my school to neglect my education via “homeschooling” was no substitute for a real high school. My “physical education” gymnasium was the Saskatchewan forest where we had to lumberjack for our winter heating because the source of central heat was a log-burning outdoor furnace. Every day was spent conforming and performing, and I hated it. My birthday that May was a depressing reminder that I still had 5,840 mandatory hours left to go. I wasn’t myself anymore – I felt like a prisoner in a religious cult.

The tiny dorm room at Canaan Land that I shared with roommates and eventually Nathan Schultz.
Our chapel, classroom, and dining area at Canaan Land.

Rev. Lee told us the story of a recent participant from Prince Albert, Eric, who was age 15. He apparently didn’t want to follow the rules a few days after he arrived and didn’t want to participate. Rev. Lee kicked him out of the program, but said Eric didn’t want to leave and return to his physically abusive dad. “The skinny kid decided to fight me, and so I barely smacked him and he went flying down the hallway” Rev. Lee reminisced. A few months later, another youth from Christian Centre Academy arrived there. Why were we, at age 15, sent to a program for grown adult men like bikers or addicts?

Why were we, at age 15, sent to a program for grown adult men like bikers or addicts?

After what felt like an eternity, I only had 8 weeks left. Then 6! Hope started to creep back in as I began counting down the last 1,000 hours left in my “sentence”. I was desperately eager for all this weirdness to finally end and to return to having a future again. When I had only 3 weeks left, I gathered enough courage to ask about the exact day I’ll graduate so I can plan my return home. The unexpected answer hit me like a punch to the gut – in a soul-crushing instant, I was told by Rev. Lee and my parent that Pastor Johnson says I can’t return home yet. Even worse, Pastor would not give me a future graduation date; he said “nobody really knows except God” when I will be “ready” to go back home. No reasons were given for this abrupt change of plans other than it was because of Pastor’s direction. I pleaded with my parent, but they said Pastor told them “no” already. I could tell they were crushed too because neither of us expected this cruel twist. I was so confused. What was wrong with me as a person that I’m unwanted by my church and school after a whole year of being put through this punishment? Why can’t I be at home with my family? If you ever want to break a young human’s spirit while also crushing their psychological health, this is a very effective way.

If you ever want to break a young human’s spirit while also crushing their psychological health, this is a very effective way.

Time slowly trickled by. Eventually we switched from attending Prince Albert Family Church to Saskatoon Christian Centre for church services every Saturday night and Sunday morning. This was my home church where I knew everyone who attended there or went to its school, and I was excited to finally be seeing my parent and sibling again. What I didn’t expect when we arrived was the complete humiliation of them displaying us front and center in the 3rd pew of the church in every service! It was an obvious example to the other students of the church-school; conform or face these consequences. Years later, I would learn that some of my other classmates were threatened with being sent there if they were “rebellious”. To get an approximate idea of what participating in some of this church’s special services looked like in the mid-90’s, here is an example guest speaker that Christian Centre had, except filmed at a different equivalent church: Video 1 > and Video 2 >.

Near the middle of my 2nd year when I turned 17, I asked about going home again. Just like before, I was denied going home by Pastor Johnson and no possible future date or goal was given. Now the only hope I had left to look forward to was trying again in another 8,760 hours on my 18th birthday when I became an adult and had “rights”. Meanwhile my education, development, and mental wellness continued to deteriorate. My weight kept dropping from loss of appetite and one of my suicidal ideations involved harming myself with my chainsaw in the forest. I hated Keith Johnson for keeping me there and I resented my parent and church for siding with that cruel cult-leader instead of me.

My school documented their participation in isolating me in Canaan Land.

There were never more than 3 other participants there with me at any given time, and sometimes I was alone due to all the other participants dropping out. I didn’t ever meet any bikers or drug addicts, but 4 out of the 7 participants I was there with were from Christian Centre’s school or church. One of the new participants mysteriously arrived one day after church in late 1998 who I already knew from the school and church. He was Nathan Schultz, the son of elder Ken Schultz who sent me there. My roommate at that time knew him too, and instantly bolted from the program the moment he heard Nathan was joining us. When Rev. Lee told me the reason Ken Schultz made the suspicious decision to send his own adult son away to Canaan Land, it sounded like an obvious cover story. Little did I know, more than 20 years later it would be revealed that he was sent there to cover-up his alleged sexual abuse against girls in the church. Nathan and I were roommates for a few months, but they neglected to tell me that I was sleeping across from an alleged sexual abuser of children.

Little did I know, more than 20 years later it would be revealed that he was sent there to cover-up his alleged sexual abuse against girls in the church.

When I became 18 in May of 1999, again I asked to go home. Finally, I was allowed by pastor Johnson to complete the program. My parent excitedly attended my grad ceremony there the next month and brought me back home to the rest of my family where I belonged. After 2 1/2 years of my youth lost in…whatever this was, it was finally over.

I spent 2 1/2 years as a kid in this 1-year adult program. The equivalent of 75 years of church attendance.

Epilog:

3 months later, Canaan Land Ministries Canada closed its doors permanently and thus Nathan was released back into the church. I wrote my GED the next year because I was already 18 but had only received 9 high school credits. A year later, Shian Klassen tapped me on the shoulder during church service one evening and issued me a new ultimatum – enroll in the church’s Faith College Bible school or “never darken the church’s doorway again”. He claimed pastor Johnson said that “Faith College was God’s will for me”. I made my choice, and was exiled.

20 years later… I looked up at the TV; I could swear I just heard the news say an old familiar name. Something about my old school…? My wife turned up the volume. I recognized the face and name of one of the “little kids” from my old school and church days, now a mom. Her lawyer’s next words froze me in place as he read the heinous allegations against my old church-school, including my old Canaan Land roommate, Nathan. Over the next few weeks, everyone involved, including the church defendant and authorities, were echoing a common message: please step forward so things can be taken care of properly and legally. So I did. Later, I was notified that our school files may contain records that are relevant to the legal process. I figured I should inquire just so I can at least say I tried but there’s no way I would expect anything was kept for this long. Against all odds, my dusty file was still at the school after more than 2 decades! They handed my package of “receipts” over, and then I handed it over to the participants in the legal and investigation process. Among the items: my school’s handwritten records of the acts they committed in this article.

Eventually, the media reported this story:

And in the following months, I did a podcast episode on it:

Later, the Canadian True Crime podcast covered my old church-school: