May 27, 2024

It looks like a bit of visual fun, a knowing wink to Canadian history.

In 2019, members of the Canadian Prophetic Council were meeting in Charlottetown and decided to pose for a photo in front of the lieutenant-governor’s residence.

They were recreating an iconic image in the country’s history.

In 1864, the Fathers of Confederation were photographed in the same location, in the same poses, during a break in their deliberations on the creation of Canada.

Among those in the 2019 photo was Faytene Grasseschi, a leading figure in the Christian conservative movement based in New Brunswick since 2020.

Sitting in the Sir John A. Macdonald position was Tatyana Russell-Chipp, a musician and missionary at Grasseschi’s church in Quispamsis.

Two photos on top of one another - the lower one a recreation of an historic photo of the Father's of Confederation.
In 2019, members of the Canadian Prophetic Council, in the lower photo, tried to recreate an inconic 1864 image of the Fathers of Confederation in front of the lieutenant-governor’s residence in Charlottetown. (Library and Archives Canada and submitted by Tatyana Russell-Chipp )

The new photo was more than a cheeky homage, said Russell-Chipp, and was meant as “a prophetic act.”

“Like, ‘we’re going to be who you were, in a new time, in order to be God’s hands and feet for Canada, to reestablish the Dominion of Canada as something that honours God,'” Russell-Chipp said in an interview.

The Fathers of Confederation called the new nation the “Dominion of Canada,” inspired by Psalm 72:8 — “He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”

For some believers, that choice of words was a sign from God, according to former followers.

“It’s prophetic to them,” said Brent Harris, a Saint John city councillor who worked as a minister for churches affiliated with Grasseschi’s church in Quispamsis.

“Using that word was the Lord coming in to put his fingerprint on the nation, and when the resurrection happens, you know this will be the nation of Canada rising to its proper place in the kingdom,” Harris said. 

To pave the way for that, adherents believe that “true believers must be elected,” said Marci McDonald, the author of a 2010 book on the Christian conservative movement.

‘If you love something you get involved,’ Grasseschi says

Grasseschi now leads the Canadian Prophetic Council, which lists “belief in the supremacy of the Word of God” as its first core value. 

She also hosts a TV show looking at current affairs from a faith-based perspective.

Her organization, 4 My Canada, is running a webpage signing up people to support Premier Blaine Higgs on his changes to Policy 713, which sets out protections for LGBTQ+ students in schools.

A woman with long blonde hair sitting outside at a table with her arms folded over a piece of paper. A yellow disposable coffee cup with a white lid sits on the table in front of her.
Since Faytene Grasseschi publicly defended Premier Blaine Higgs, she has been called out by those who believe her political activism is driven by religious doctrine. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

If Higgs faces a leadership review in the Progressive Conservative Party, Grasseschi plans to urge those who sign to buy party memberships to vote for him.

“What motivated me is that I love Canada,” she said in an interview with CBC News earlier this month, in which she avoided questions about how her religious views drive her political involvement.

“If you love something you get involved, and it’s really as simple as that. … The nation and our communities are shaped by those who show up in the process.”

However, her previous statements and involvement in various religious organizations have caused some to question the motivations behind her campaign — and to urge PC party members to be wary.

‘Much more radical’ behind the scenes: former follower

Since Grasseschi gave that interview, several former followers have called her out on social media.

They believe a religious doctrine called the New Apostolic Reformation is central to her political activism, and to her attempts to influence the PC party’s debate about Higgs’s future.

“They just want to come across as very caring and pleasant and normal, regular people, and they’re really good at that,” said Sarah Ecker, a former adherent of NAR who lives outside Fredericton.

A head and shoulders shot of a woman with curly hair and glasses.
Sarah Ecker, a former follower of the New Apostolic Reformation, says adherents ‘want to come across as very caring and pleasant and normal, regular people.’ (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

“But then behind the scenes they’re much more radical in their beliefs.”

According to Russell-Chipp, Grasseschi’s political activism “checks all the boxes” of the NAR, which she said “aims to make society look more like heaven, so it’s more plausible for Jesus to return.”

And she said that could make society “a really unsafe place for a lot of marginalized groups, especially queer people, especially trans people.”

NAR adherence ‘hard to pin down,’ expert says

Adherence to NAR is, however, “very hard to pin down”  because of the movement’s amorphous nature, said André Gagné, a Concordia University professor who has studied the Christian right. 

It lacks a defined congregation, hierarchy or structure.

C. Peter Wagner, a U.S. missionary who coined the term New Apostolic Reformation, wrote in 2011 that it is “not an organization. No one can join or carry a card. It has no leader.”

Ecker said some adherents “aren’t even aware of these terms, but they hold these ideas deeply. … So it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m not part of that.'”

Gagné points to Grasseschi’s 2005 book, Stand on Guard, where she called for Canadians to reestablish “the righteous foundations laid by generations past” and stand up for “the dominion of Jesus Christ manifested in every arena of the nation.”

A close look at the web of networks and associations among Christian conservatives shows connections between Grasseschi and figures “associated” with NAR, said Gagné. 

He said they include Cindy Jacobs, a U.S. faith leader close to Wagner who co-founded Generals International, whose website espouses “spiritual warfare,” and Stacey Campbell, who founded the Canadian Prophetic Council that Grasseschi now runs.

But Grasseschi said she has “no memory” of Jacobs or Campbell using the term NAR.

Criticism based on firsthand experience, former adherents say

Gagné said NAR adherents espouse a concept called Dominionism that holds that “Christians are called by God to rule, to have authority and penetrate and have influence on the social and political institutions of their country and the world.”

The three former followers all believe Grasseschi subscribes to that view.

They say that’s based on their own first-hand experience, though Grasseschi disputes that.

“The people who left the church did not know me beyond a surface acquaintance, and we never had conversations about these things together,” she said.

Russell-Chipp worshipped alongside Grasseschi at her church in Quispamsis, Harris was part of the same movement, and Ecker considers herself a former adherent of the New Apostolic Reformation.

A woman with long dark hair and glasses sits with her back resting on a red brick wall.
Tatyana Russell-Chipp was a musician and missionary at Grasseschi’s church in Quispamsis. (Submitted by Tatyana Russell-Chipp)

Russell-Chipp joined the church in Quispamsis in 2017 and said the church became more politically active in 2020 when Grasseschi arrived.

“She was extremely driven and knew that this was a place that she could get support from people who thought like her,” said Russell-Chipp.

Church members volunteered for her unsuccessful campaign to win the federal Conservative nomination for Saint John-Rothesay for the 2021 election, she said.

They did so “on their own time and of their own volition,” Grasseschi responded, and with no financial support from the church. 

NAR’s goal: ‘kingdom-minded people’ in 7 key areas

Wagner, the American religious leader who first defined NAR, said in 2011 its goal was “to have kingdom-minded people” in seven key areas of society: religion, family, education, government, media, the arts and business.

Those leaders, he said, would help “the blessings and prosperity of the Kingdom of God … permeate all areas of society” and “push back the long-standing kingdom of Satan and bring the peace and prosperity of His kingdom here on earth.

“This is what we mean by Dominionism,” Wagner wrote.

Grasseschi said she is not a Dominionist and the NAR label “is not one I am deeply acquainted with. My sense is that it has been used in a derogatory way to try to label people of faith to try to discount them in the public square.”

Religion not relevant to Policy 713 debate, Grasseschi says

In her July 12 CBC interview, Grasseschi said her religious views were not relevant to her political involvement and didn’t want to discuss them in detail.

“Do I believe in the power of prayer? Absolutely,” she said. “I think most Canadians do.”

But she said many New Brunswickers of other faiths, or of no faith, were signing her petition supporting Higgs on Policy 713.

She said she was motivated as a mother, believing parents should not be excluded from discussions at school about their children wanting to change their names and pronouns to reflect their gender identity.

Gagné said it’s common for NAR followers to frame their efforts “in a way that doesn’t sound religious” to gain allies and advance their agenda.

Activist said she’s not hiding her faith

Asked about the criticism by Ecker, Russell-Chipp and Harris, Grasseschi wrote in a July 22 email that “I am not hiding (or ashamed) that I am a person of faith, this is public knowledge, and I have revealed it plainly for years.

“It just isn’t relevant to [Don’t Delete Parents] and our support of the premier on 713. This is about parents.”

She pointed out that Psalm 72, where the “dominion” phrase appears, “is about protecting the needy, the afflicted who are abandoned, and defending the weak from violence.”

A man with grey hair and glasses posing with a woman with long blond hair
Grasseschi says she met with Higgs in March in his role as Quispamsis MLA, before the Policy 713 controversy began. (Submitted by Faytene Grasseschi)

She said that’s why she supported federal legislation to fight human trafficking, helped Ukrainians fleeing the war, worked to create community gardens to help people facing food insecurity, and backed a Conservative MP’s 2010 bill to ban what it calls “coerced” abortions.

Grasseschi has also been a missionary in Africa and a volunteer helping homeless people in Vancouver. 

“I believe in Christ-like service, loving our neighbour as ourselves and crossing the road to help,” she said.

“The leadership of Christ is always about serving and laying your life down for others, particularly the most vulnerable. That is His style. It is never about control.”

Some figures ‘rebranding’ NAR because of divisions

Gagné said divisions over NAR among U.S. evangelicals, prompted in part by mistaken prophecies that Donald Trump would remain in power and by the Jan. 6 insurrection, have led some figures to distance themselves from the term.

“They’re just changing names, relabelling, rebranding, but in the end it still remains, pretty much at the core, a lot of the same ideas,” he said.

“I’m not convinced that Faytene doesn’t know what this is. I think she knows what this is. … I’m not saying people don’t change through time, but it’s clear in her 2005 book, she did talk about dominion.”

Have Grasseschi’s views changed? 

Grasseschi said her ideas have evolved over the years. 

“There are things I said years ago that I would not say today or not in the same way. This could be said of any public person,” she said.

“As we go, we mature and deepen in understanding. Our communities are also in a different place, and the conversations are different.”

Russell-Chipp is skeptical based on what she saw when she attended Grasseschi’s church.

“She’s still advocating for the same things. She still maintains the same world view,” she said.

“I can’t imagine that much has changed for her.”

And that vision “is not a safe world view for queer people, for trans people,” she added.

In her email responses, Grasseschi compared anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment to how she said she has been “bullied in a sustained way” for her views. 

“I respect the rights of adults to identify and live as they wish. … I would never do anything to create an unsafe culture for others, no matter who they are.”

PCs should ‘do some soul-searching’

All three of Grasseschi’s critics have now left the movement.

Ecker said she still has church-going friends “and they’re wonderful people. I just don’t want to be in those spaces right now. I find so much joy in quietness and reflecting.”

But she has been vocal on social media about Grasseschi and is urging New Brunswick’s PC party to “do their homework, figure out who people are, who they really are” or risk further radicalizing and dividing provincial politics.

In a mid-July statement about Grasseschi’s campaign, Higgs said he has received support “from a wide cross section of individuals” who come from “different backgrounds, different cultures, and different religions.”

He said “despite their differences,” they share his belief and supports his what he calls his balanced approach on Policy 713.

Ecker says Tory members “need to do some soul searching and reflecting on who they want to attach their cart to.”

“Are they using that movement or is that movement using them?”