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Trinity Western University's Long Reach to Ottawa

How a BC Christian junior college grew to be a key provider to Stephen Harper's power structure.

Marci McDonald 22 Jul

Excerpted from The Armageddon Factor. Copyright 2010 Marci McDonald. Published by Random House Canada, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Tory Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl is a TWU graduate.

[Editor's note: Previous excerpts from The Armageddon Factor detailed the rise of Bible-based schooling in Canada and the way a parallel movement in the U.S. has established a small but remarkably influential university, Patrick Henry College, which was a key source of Christian conservative interns and graduates for the administration of President George W. Bush and the Republican network in Washington. Today: Canada's own elite Christian university, Trinity Western, appears to be pursuing a similar role.]

Driving north from Langley, British Columbia, past ragged woodlots and weathered horse barns, it's not difficult to miss the turnoff to Trinity Western University. No triumphal gates mark the entrance to the country's leading evangelical institution of higher learning tucked away in this rural pocket of the Fraser Valley.

Vancouver is half an hour's drive to the west and Ottawa seems light years away, but it was here in the rolling fields of the former Seal Pak Dairy Farm that the elders of the Evangelical Free Church planted their vision of a Christian institution of higher education unlike the countless Bible colleges dotting the country: a private liberal-arts college with a distinguished reputation and an undisguised political aim -- to "develop godly Christian leaders."

It was a grandiose goal for a school whose beginnings were humble in the extreme. Making its debut in 1962 as Trinity Junior College, its first 17 students took lectures in the old farmhouse and played sports in the refurbished barn. The only new structure on the grounds was a gull-winged chapel that doubled as a dormitory and library when not in use for the mandatory daily prayer service. Now, nearly 50 years later, on a manicured campus strewn with bustling low-rises -- each bearing some wealthy benefactor's name -- the chapel sits condemned, fenced off like some mid-century-modern relic of the school's long struggle for respectability.

That struggle entailed decades of government lobbying and a lawsuit before the Supreme Court, but today most of Trinity Western's 4,000 students sail between classes blissfully unaware of the controversy that dogged its ascension to a unique niche in the country's academic pantheon.

On the road to university status

Most are drawn by its cozy communal atmosphere and a top spot in the Globe and Mail's annual ranking of small universities where it has scored an A+ for quality of education and faculty interaction -- with no class larger than 20 students -- but a D for its proximity to the nearest pubs.

For many evangelical parents, that lack of temptation is precisely the reason they dispatch their offspring to a school that requires every enrollee to sign a 13-page Responsibilities of Membership agreement that bans smoking, drinking, swearing, drugs and dabbling in the occult, while noting that the university "does not condone dancing at clubs where alcohol is liberally consumed." Abortion is included in the list of forbidden activities, as are all coed living arrangements, even off-campus, and the separate dorms reserved for men and women have regulated hours for commingling. "Sexual intimacy is to be practiced only within the context of marriage between a husband and a wife," the agreement states.

It was precisely those stipulations that kept Trinity Western University classified as a two-year junior college for more than a decade, and in the 1970s, with B.C.'s New Democratic government adamantly opposed to recognizing any private religious institutions, that status seemed unlikely to change. The school's only hope lay in a private member's bill sponsored by a Social Credit MLA, which had been put off until the last day of the spring legislative session in 1979.

Then, with 20 minutes left on the clock, the premier, Dave Barrett, suddenly stood up and walked out. It turned out that Barrett, who'd been educated by Jesuits, had agreed to support the measure but felt philosophically compelled to sit out the vote. As cries of "hypocrite" and "mugwump" flew across the chamber, the bill squeaked through in what Bob Burkinshaw, Trinity's dean of social sciences, hails as "one of the most significant religious events in a century."

Most of the country's major universities had been founded as religious institutions, Burkinshaw points out, but all have since been secularized. "It was the first time in a century there was a new university in Canada that was confessional," he says. "Basically, it broke the state monopoly on higher education."

'Evolutionism' as enemy

Still, it would be another five years before the powerful Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada would confer its official imprimatur on Trinity Western.

The sticking point was a doctrinal statement, which even members of the science faculty must sign, acknowledging the biblical account of creation. A committee of university presidents swooped in to grill Jack Van Dyke, the chemistry professor who then headed Trinity Western's science department, on whether the college taught evolution. "My answer was yes," Van Dyke says, "but you need to understand that we teach evolution within a context and that context is creation. Anybody who says there is no evolution is not opening their eyes -- you just have to look at the mutation of viruses -- but what we at Trinity try to avoid is 'evolutionism,' which is a religion."

That response might have sent shock waves through most mainstream science faculties, as would the university's later "Statement on Creation," which includes a nod to intelligent design, but after a year of heated debate, the association finally recognized Trinity Western's degrees for international accreditation. "They were satisfied that we weren't hiding theories from our students," Van Dyke says.

Still, even today, in an interview with me in the university cafeteria, he admits to a foundational belief that "God created mankind" and vents his pique at newspaper headlines that refer to apes as the ancestors of humans.

So what would he say to those evolutionary biologists who insist that God had no part in the origins of the universe? "Well, I feel sorry for those people!" Van Dyke exclaims, slapping the table. "They've missed the richness of life."

Battle to train teachers

Buoyed by its newfound status, Trinity Western launched a decade of feverish expansion, adding an interdenominational seminary, nursing school and faculty of education, but once again, its Christian precepts threw up a stumbling block. For years, its education students had to spend their final year at Simon Fraser University in order to win certification from the British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT), but, in 1995, a BCCT committee finally signalled that Trinity Western had met the necessary conditions to grant its own teaching degrees.

Then, at the eleventh hour, one official noticed the definition of marriage in the "Responsibilities of Membership" agreement. While it didn't declare homosexuality a sin, its assertion that marriage was reserved for a man and a woman left little doubt about its implication. At a time when the Correns had just overturned the Surrey school board's ban on same-sex storybooks, the university suddenly found its application rejected on the grounds that the teachers it trained might spread a disapproval of homosexuality in the province's public schools.

As the veto unleashed protests from conservative Christians across the country, Trinity Western filed a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination, which eventually landed in the Supreme Court. Half a dozen evangelical organizations filed supporting briefs, including the Christian Legal Fellowship, represented by Dallas Miller of the Home School Legal Defence Association.

But for Trinity Western, the case also provoked institutional soul-searching. Some uncompromising evangelical allies urged the university to use it as a direct constitutional challenge to the concept of gay rights, and an Alberta group offered to foot the legal bill. Despite the temptation, Trinity Western's legal team declined to turn its quest for academic standing into yet another vitriolic clash in the culture wars.

"We decided we weren't going to go on the attack," Burkinshaw says. Besides, the university didn't need the proffered funds. "We had more donors for that case," he says with a chuckle, "than for any other campaign."

On May 17, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the B.C. College of Teachers had failed to prove that Trinity Western students exhibited anti-homosexual bias. Merely holding a belief, it said, did not necessarily translate into discriminatory acts. In Langley, there was jubilation. Now students no longer had to contemplate concealing their faith like some humiliating skeleton in the closet that might block them from their chosen careers, but the ruling also had implications far beyond the campus. In Calgary, constitutional lawyer Gerry Chipeur, who had intervened in the case on behalf of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, called it "the most important freedom-of-religion decision that the Supreme Court has ever made."

Had the B.C. College of Teachers succeeded, he argued, it could have squelched the professional aspirations of evangelicals in every field across the country. "They would basically have kept all Christians out of public service," Chipeur says now. "Not just teachers, but doctors, nurses and lawyers -- even judges."

The ruling came at a convenient time. Months earlier, Trinity Western had embarked on a mission not unlike that of Patrick Henry College in the U.S.: to put more evangelicals on the fast track to jobs in the civil service and the country's political power structure.

Grooming for public service

On a flight from Ottawa to Vancouver, a Trinity Western official got a confidential tip from his seatmate: an historic mansion in Ottawa was going on the market for a song. For Don Page, the dean of graduate studies at the university, the news was the answer to a decade-old prayer. A former Ottawa mandarin, Page had been lured to Trinity Western to groom a new generation of Christians for the federal public Service -- a determination fuelled, in part, by his own disenchantment.

As a senior policy adviser in the External Affairs Department, stickhandling international crises, he had been appalled when some of the country's most promising young diplomats were caught smuggling contraband and accepting bribes. "These were not stupid people," he recalls, "but they didn't see anything wrong with what they were doing. In fact, they'd rationalize it: 'You aren't paying us enough so we have to make money on the side.'"

To Page, who had started a Bible study group at External Affairs and inspired prayer cells in 30 other departments under the Public Service Christian Fellowship, there was only one solution: to enlist more people of faith in the government. "I realized we had to find a better class of public servant," he says, "and Trinity Western was the only university that was committed to doing something about it."

But for more than a decade after his arrival, as he lectured on servant leadership in every faculty and laid the groundwork for a master's degree in the subject, Page had watched the essential ingredient of his scheme -- a hands-on internship program in Ottawa -- bog down in a bizarre tangle of interprovincial red tape.

He was ready to shelve his dream when he got the news that the Metcalfe Street mansion built by J. R. Booth, the lumber baron who had supplied the timber for the original Parliament Buildings, had been put up for sale by the dwindling membership of the elite Laurentian Club. Not only was it an ideal location for Trinity Western's interns, it was an architectural gem -- a certified national historical site which would give the obscure western university a prestigious satellite campus in the capital.

Moving into God's mansion

In March 2001, Trinity Western took possession of its new Laurentian Leadership Centre for less than $2 million, and for Page, the million dollar renovation became a labour of love. In the summer of 2002, he and his wife camped out in Ottawa with an interior decorator to put the finishing touches on the restoration, polishing the mansion's eight marble fireplaces and its antique sterling silver sconces, even handwashing all two hundred crystal pendants in the giant chandelier that Booth had given his daughter as a wedding present.

Still, it wasn't those palatial digs alone that turned the Laurentian Leadership Centre into an unprecedented evangelical training ground.

Contacting MPs and former colleagues across the capital's bureaucracy, Page rustled up three-month unpaid internships that have become the envy of other student programs in the capital. Under the contracts he drafted, every intern receives a semester's worth of real work writing speeches or policy papers with no fear of being used as a glorified secretary.

In September 2002, the centre's first class of 23 students fanned out to assignments in almost every government department and key capital power centres like the Ottawa Citizen and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Nearly a dozen found themselves on the staff of MPs, including Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day, and two of their most eager bosses were Chuck Strahl and Diane Ablonczy, both of whom are Trinity Western alumni.

So intent was Page that his charges make a good impression, he gave them tutorials on etiquette and office dress codes. Not that he was worried they would show up for work nursing hangovers: for once, Trinity Western's moral code was a plus. "They recognized they were going to get a student with strong moral values," he says. "That's what every MP wanted to know: can I trust this student with documents?"

'Onward Christian soldiers'

To run the centre, Page enlisted Paul Wilson, who had arrived in Ottawa in 1994 to work as director of research for Preston Manning's Reform Party, and stayed on to perform the same duties for Stockwell Day.

Later, Wilson would serve as senior policy adviser for one of the most hard-line evangelicals in Harper's new government, former justice minister Vic Toews. But before he left the Laurentian Leadership Centre for that post, he helped organize Manning's first Ottawa conference on faith and politics, coaching the newly elected crop of evangelicals in Harper's caucus on how to navigate the pitfalls facing Christians in public life.

At the time, Wilson was furious at press reports that compared the Laurentian Leadership Centre to Patrick Henry College. "This is not a political training program," he told the Ottawa Citizen. "It's about understanding citizenship and faith."

Not everyone at the paper appears to have accepted that disclaimer.

"Onward Christian soldiers," read the headline, hinting that, like Michael Farris, Wilson was bent on grooming Canada's own Joshua generation for government. "Evangelicals are mobilizing in Ottawa to put their stamp on public policy and opinion."

Tomorrow: Inside the Ottawa centre where the Christian Right is polishing its new generation of public servants.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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