Sep 28, 2023

In Tragedy's Wake, Kenya Grapples With How To Combat Dangerous Cults

Over 400 died in the recent Shakahola Massacre, but regulating the world of American-inspired Pentecostal pastors is far from straightforward


New Lines Magazine

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is a journalist and the author of “Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World”

September 28, 2023


In late June, Joseph Juma Buyuka died after a 10-day hunger strike at Kenya’s Shimo La Tewa Prison. No ordinary prisoner of conscience, Buyuka had been detained along with 64 fellow followers of the radical preacher Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, leader of Good News International Ministries, the doomsday cult behind over 400 confirmed deaths in what has become known as the Shakahola Massacre.

Buyuka was reportedly one of Mackenzie’s key lieutenants while they lived in the Shakahola Forest, a secluded area north of the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa. In one of the worst peacetime death tolls in modern African history, officials estimate that at least 800 victims starved themselves to death — with some of the 427 exhumed bodies showing signs of murder.

Authorities moved in on the rural encampment in April, after elders in nearby villages reported emaciated children arriving and begging for food, as wretched skeletal bodies began overwhelming the local morgue. Under Mackenzie’s spell, Shakahola victims, largely impoverished young people and desperate young families, had undergone a regime of extreme fasting in an attempt to hasten a meeting with Jesus.

Reportedly already too weak to walk when he was first arraigned at court, Buyuka and 64 others were being investigated for, among other things, murder and manslaughter, attempted suicide, religious radicalization and cruelty and neglect toward children.

The Shakahola Massacre is possibly the worst cult mass suicide since Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple saw 900 followers perish at “Jonestown” in Guyana in 1978. Both Jones and Mackenzie appear to have been inspired by the same obscure American preacher who died in the 1960s. An unalloyed tragedy in its own right, the events have many in Kenya as well as the wider African continent questioning the influence of rogue and radical preachers — and those from farther afield who have inspired them.

Mackenzie, who has denied culpability in the massacre, comes from the most extreme end of the evangelical Pentecostal-charismatic movement. In 2020, the World Christian Encyclopedia counted 644 million Pentecostals and charismatics worldwide, with 230 million of those on the African continent. One of the key factors in the rise of the movement, centered on the role of the Holy Spirit, is that it has no denominational hierarchy to provide oversight and vetting of pastors.

In the Pentecostal tradition, the only thing that pastors need to hold serious moral and spiritual authority is followers. The most charismatic, in both senses of the word, tend to rise to the top. On the one hand, this is a blessing, providing a more culturally and materially accessible form of faith to the developing world. But equally, this unfettered way of “doing church” has resulted in a new generation of extremist preachers.

Though undoubtedly a horrific outlier of Pentecostalism, Mackenzie is a self-taught pastor whose force of personality turned him into perhaps this century’s most prolific cult leader — and, as Buyuka’s recent death shows, one who still has a powerful hold over his followers from behind bars.

As authorities work their way through the bodies, the massacre is prompting serious questions about whether religious leaders ought to be subject to regulation and just where the boundaries of church and state lie. Kenya’s President William Ruto, himself an evangelical, launched a task force to look into enacting new laws to crack down on rogue churches and pastors, which led to the National Council of Churches fearing an attack on their religious freedom.

Weeks after the initial discovery of bodies in April, survivors were being found hiding under bushes, still refusing food and water. At the rescue center that housed them, many continued to deny themselves sustenance. It was then that the authorities charged “the 65” with attempted suicide — a misdemeanor punishable by two years’ imprisonment — and attempted to force-feed them.

In an August court appearance, Mackenzie held firm, telling journalists that those who want to see Jesus have to undergo trials while on earth.

“Go read John 12, which states that don’t be afraid of what befalls you,” he said. “However, be patient. This is in accordance with the preachings of Jesus Christ.” The only earthly sin he had committed, Mackenzie claimed, was eating — and the moment he stopped eating, he too would join his heavenly father. Mackenzie’s lawyer Wycliffe Makasembo stepped in to stop him from speaking further, advising journalists to not “quote any sentiments that my client has made, apart from Bible verses that he has mentioned.”

Out on Shakahola’s 800 acres of ochre fields, where authorities and families are still sifting through mounds of upturned dirt for remains, Mackenzie’s biblical justifications are of little concern.

A pathologist working on the case said that the victims’ remains showed signs of extreme starvation. Some appeared to have been murdered, with signs of smothering and blunt force trauma. Investigators say that autopsies have raised suspicions of organ harvesting among the deceased, while Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki said there are fears that some of the scores of dead children may have been victims of sexual abuse.

An estimated 400 followers remain missing. Many of them had moved to the forest from around the country and, in a few cases, internationally, lured by Mackenzie’s radical online preaching. Their families’ trauma has been compounded by the incapacity of regional authorities to process the sheer number of bodies. Complex and lengthy identification processes, such as DNA testing, are placing a burden on relatives, most of whom have limited resources and need to travel to the remote region to give samples.

In the beginning, one former congregant told a local reporter, Mackenzie’s sermons “were normal,” but from 2010 “his ‘End Times’ messages began.” It is unclear precisely what led to Mackenzie’s radicalization during this period but he found many followers willing to move with him in that direction. Directed to retreat from the world to prepare for the end of days, Mackenzie’s ministry pulled children out of school, entering followers into church-arranged marriages and disconnecting them from their communities.

Julius M. Gathogo, a theology professor at Kenyatta University, told New Lines that although Mackenzie had a stint as a televangelist, he was “virtually unknown” to most Kenyans before the Shakahola massacre came to light. Before founding his Good News International Ministry in 2003, Mackenzie had worked as a nighttime taxi driver in the capital of Nairobi.

During this time, Gathogo said, Mackenzie was “arrested four times for his controversial sermons, but acquitted after every time due to lack of evidence.” In one such incident in October 2017, police rescued 93 children from his care and the preacher was charged with promoting radicalization. “The pastor has brainwashed residents” against schools and hospitals, one local official later told reporters, explaining that Mackenzie was teaching children an extreme form of Christianity in an unregistered church school. But again, Mackenzie was acquitted. A year later, residents in a town near the massacre site demolished one of his churches, protesting what they decried as false Christian teachings.

Mackenzie’s increasingly public pronouncements saw him lock horns with a prominent local member of Parliament in the region of Malindi, Aisha Jumwa, now the government’s secretary of public service and gender. Jumwa denounced the teachings that saw children leaving their allegedly “satanic” education and accused Mackenzie of bribing security agencies to turn a blind eye to his bizarre activities.

“It is absurd that despite having been arrested about three times and charged,” she said at the time during a public rally, “the pastor is still scot-free and continues with his work of radicalizing schoolchildren.”

Mackenzie, who preaches rejection of secular institutions, nevertheless replied that critics needed to go to court. “I am not afraid to serve my God,” he said. In spite of the legal system’s insistence of a lack of evidence, damning indictments of Mackenzie’s preaching continued to emerge in public forums. One video surfaced on social media showing children aged 6 to 17 renouncing their secular education, declaring it ungodly.

In 2019, the preacher was again arrested for inciting his congregants against the new government identity card, called the “huduma namba” (service number). “Mackenzie called it satanic and likened it to the number of the beast, seen in the Book of Revelation,” Gathogo said. By getting involved in a significant national issue, Gathogo said that Mackenzie “publicized himself for the wrong reasons.”

If the huduma namba helped bring Mackenzie to prominence, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated his doomsday message and further radicalized his followers. For many among them, it was confirmation that the world was coming to an end and that Mackenzie was the prophet of the End Times. More and more followers began to quit their jobs and move to the forest, where some bought plots of land for $80 — about the price of a sheep, though the land was probably worth around 40 times this — in sections with names such as Galilee and Bethlehem.

Another act of God appeared to be the final death knell for many in the community. One victim, whose husband had bought a small plot of land and moved the family to the massacre site in 2020, said that they used to eat and drink but things changed when drought set in. Since October 2020, season after season of failed rains in East Africa have created the worst drought in 40 years. Mackenzie began telling his followers that they needed to “fast to meet Jesus.”

Though Mackenzie’s was clearly a fringe group, Kenya has proven fertile ground for new religious movements, many of which have emerged from Pentecostalism. In one of the most devout countries on earth, more than 85% of Kenyans identify as Christian. In the 21st century, Gathogo explained, the Afro-Pentecostal movement has become one of the dominant religious movements in the country — with about one-third of the population, or some 15 to 20 million people, adhering to it. In order to keep up, Gathogo notes, more traditional denominations such as Catholicism and Anglicanism are engaging in Pentecostal-style practices, such as faith healing and speaking in tongues.

“The British colonial government did not encourage Pentecostalism before 1963 when colonialism ended,” Gathogo said, which helps explain the first wave of the movement as something more localized and authentic. A key part of the appeal of this strand of evangelical faith is “its ability to easily resonate with indigenous cultures,” he added.

“This is in terms of their vibrant modes of worship,” Gathogo said, “their noisiness, their forms of hospitality appear to reach the lowest in society.” Pointing to the singing and dancing that gets worshippers inside the tent, he noted that these are part of indigenous African religiosity. “Hence, postcolonial Africa has to dance with the rhythms of Pentecostalism, which are influential across the social-religious divides.”

Here, the lines between church and state are often blurred. At political rallies, Gathogo said, it is common to see performances from Pentecostal gospel artists. They are “influencing political events” by putting on a good show and appealing to the deep Christian beliefs, flecked with African spirituality, that flow through the country.

In this regard, Good News International was very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“Paul Mackenzie’s religio-cultic outfit initially poses as an African Pentecostal church, that displays communality, hospitality and care for the lowly and needy in society, and vibrant drama-dancing-singing outfits,” Gathogo said. Looking like other African-Pentecostal churches, “Mackenzie’s Good News International Ministries impresses you with evangelical faith that takes the Bible seriously and believes in Jesus Christ as savior and lord.”

Kapya John Kaoma, an expert on U.S. influence in East African churches, told New Lines that the second wave of American evangelical missionaries in the 2000s made a significant contribution to faith in the region. U.S.-funded groups opened schools and imported Christian television. Through this, both local and international fundamentalists found opportunities to set up shop in places where the regulation of education was weak.

One particular offshoot of Pentecostalism, the American-founded New Apostolic Reformation, “dumped” traditional pastors “in favor of this new group of people who felt they were neglected by the demands of the academy,” Kaoma said. Disreputable institutions offered theology doctorates “within three months.”

The new breed of pastors began pulling members away from mainline Christian denominations. “They are highly focused on the people who are in need of help, those who are economically disadvantaged, those who are sick or unemployed,” he said. Their particular pulling power was healing and miracles. “As long as you’re charismatic enough, you are able to control a group of people,” Kaoma added, “and whatever you tell them to do, they do.”

In the George W. Bush era, hardcore American evangelical groups were encouraged to push their ideology on USAID-funded programs in Africa. Kaoma said that, in turn, these groups began to “monopolize” print media, radio and, eventually, television. Mainstream Pentecostal churches began using American talking points, including vehemently anti-LGBT and anti-abortion views, opening the door for extremist preachers such as Mackenzie to push ever more radical ideas.

While indigenous African churches had their own theology, which wasn’t necessarily opposed to these outside views, many local leaders, who had historically focused on healing, were invigorated by taking on “the modernity of the American Christian right, which they could watch on television,” Kaoma said. The prosperity gospel, that most American of ideas, also became a powerful force.

Pastoral networks, not to mention sympathetic political figures, benefited greatly from this “health and wealth” brand of Christianity. As the saying goes, if a preacher can name it, he can claim it. Kaoma added that among many Christians in Africa, word from the West is highly revered. “Anything that is associated with whiteness in Africa has legitimacy,” he said. “When Mackenzie is reading a book or citing something written by a white person, that has power.”

This may help to explain why investigators believe that Mackenzie’s radical turn came about when he became a devotee of William Branham, an American doomsday preacher prominent in the 1940s and ’50s who, until Shakahola, was most notable for influencing Jim Jones.

Branham emerged from a small postwar movement called the New Order of the Latter Rain, which took on the established Pentecostal authority, itself not even 50 years old at the time. Latter Rain leaders wanted to practice the powers gifted by the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples — such as casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead — and, critically, they wanted to do it on demand rather than waiting for these gifts to be bestowed upon them.

The effect of Latter Rain on present-day Christianity cannot be understated, with direct descendants of the movement influential on many events, including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and on prominent Brazilian and Korean megapreachers, among other personalities. Those influenced include mass murderers, such as Mackenzie. Though Branham is rejected by the vast majority of the Latter Rain movement’s modern-day disciples and is not a popular figure in Kenya, according to Gathogo, his works managed to captivate this small group as it moved toward the most tragic of ends.

Called “the Message,” Branham’s sermons and books were churned out from his Indiana headquarters and distributed globally. He adopted a doctrine central to early Latter Rain preachers called “atomic power,” which could be achieved through 40 days of fasting and prayer. In one 1961 revival sermon, Branham conceded that some of his followers had put their lives in danger from the extreme practice. Pregnant women, he said, “lose their mind” and “go into insane institutions from that.”

In an interview with New Lines, Douglas Weaver, a religious studies professor at Baylor University, said that Branham was a leading divine healer in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s who also launched “crusades” overseas. Branham began calling himself “the second John the Baptist,” after the prophet who foreshadowed Christ, and predicting the second coming, which saw him become a favorite of doomsday preachers. The rogue preacher had so many “nutty doctrines,” Weaver said, that by the 1960s, Pentecostals in the U.S. began to shy away from him. Yet the fact that Branham’s ministry has continued to hold sway is an example of how some fundamentalist publications “are considered to be infallible interpretations of the Bible.”

Weaver said that anybody who reads Branham and “wants to be what I would call an authoritarian prophet” can appeal to the preacher’s legacy and say that God continues to speak through them as we reach the End Times. In a 1965 sermon shortly before his death in a car accident, Branham delivered a sermon in which he warned listeners that “no one wants to die” but that some among them would have to “die in martyrdom.”

Though Branham was “eccentric,” Weaver said, his sermons were variations of the idea that “we’re in the end days and you need to have a prophet.” Followers see him as an “infallible authority” who talks about the end, with generic prophecies about wars and other apocalyptic events. “He made pronouncements that people are simply supposed to follow,” Weaver said, “so it could become cultic.” Chief among them was that, if you believed his message, you would be raptured: that is, transported from Earth to heaven on the second coming of Christ. “You can take Branham’s theology and go as far off the deep end as you want,” Weaver added.

In Kenya and well beyond its borders, esoteric belief systems and new religious movements emerging from Pentecostal thought highlight the movement’s lack of institutional oversight. The advent of social media also offers perverse incentives. Kenya is “awash with online recruitments where targets are incentivized to go to the extreme,” Gathogo said. Believers are enticed with “promises for a better life, for a job” and told that they may find a spouse.

Gathogo explained that, in East and Central Africa, “failure to offer sound theological training” and “poor vetting in Afro-Pentecostal leadership” have seen warlords and drug runners like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army establish theocratic enclaves with extremist beliefs. Unscrupulous pastors are offering “breakthroughs in all dimensions of life,” Gathogo said, including visas for overseas work, or offering exhausted mothers ways to get their teenagers to behave. “A church where the founder cannot be disciplined by a higher authority or by established structures,” he said, “cannot be trusted.” After all, “we are all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”

There exists a spiritual marketplace of people seeking solace and support in pastors who offer solutions. Preachers like Mackenzie “take advantage of that,” Kaoma said. Any success becomes the leader’s success. Once followers find work, or love, they will often attribute that to the church, and donate money in kind, oiling the wheels of the pastor.

What is unusual in the case of the Shakahola Massacre, Kaoma noted, is that preachers like Mackenzie tend to hold the most sway in urban areas, where cost-of-living pressures and isolation from traditional communities are common. In rural areas, African-initiated religious movements, which are tied to health and community, are usually much more persuasive. The fact that Mackenzie took many followers with urban concerns and moved them to isolation in the forest, where they became willing to die for their newfound beliefs, might have contributed to the deadly success of his movement.

In this blurring of urban and rural religious divides, Mackenzie’s movement is far from alone. Shakahola is the latest and most high-profile example of extreme African Pentecostal movements in rural communities exercising undue influence over their parishioners. In 2014, South African “professor” Lesego Daniel encouraged his congregation to drink poisonous chemicals as a form of communion, claiming that he had the gift of turning “petrol into pineapple.” Two years later, his protege, pastor Lethebo Rabalago, gained infamy as the “Prophet of Doom” after he was found guilty of assault for spraying churchgoers with Doom-brand insecticide to help cast out demons that presented in the form of AIDS. Earlier this year, a Ghanaian pastor ordered church members to strip naked so that the Holy Spirit could move freely through them.

The rise of extremist preachers spanning the continent has amplified the voices of some religious leaders. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame championed a law that recently came into effect requiring pastors to have a theology degree before they can start their own congregations. It is said to have resulted in the closure of some 6,000 churches.

In the wake of Shakahola, Kenya’s President Ruto launched a task force to review the legal and regulatory framework governing religious organizations, asking the public to submit their proposal on changes required to curtail religious extremist organizations. The 17-member committee is currently reviewing the public submissions. “The operation on criminals hiding behind religion is not a war against any faith or institution,” Kindiki, the interior secretary, said at its establishment. “Crime knows no religion.”

The task force’s key responsibilities are identifying gaps that have allowed extremist religious organizations to set up shop in Kenya, as well as putting together a legal framework that prevents radical religious groups from operating in the country. This could include education standards for pastors — going against the grain of churches and movements emerging from Pentecostalism, which have traditionally flourished in poor communities where formal training can be hard to come by.

“As far as I’m concerned, it is necessary,” Gathogo said. Yet for some, the government drawing the line on what can and can’t be preached is a fraught development. Opponents of new regulations say that “churches should be left to reveal themselves,” he added. Others have argued that the massacre was a one-off affair and that the state should have intervened in the case earlier but that, in general, churches should be left to self-regulate in order to gain communities’ respect.

Reconciling deeply spiritual matters with political concerns is difficult in a country so steeped in faith. Many argue that the separation of church and state is a colonial idea that doesn’t reflect the values of a modern African state. There is also the very real chance that “outlawed” preachers would attract followings by virtue of being subversive.

Those arguing for regulation, such as Gathogo, are urging Parliament to take their time on consulting and drafting an appropriate law, as rushing will see it fail in both the court of public opinion and the supreme court, where there is a risk that it will be deemed unconstitutional.

But no matter what laws are brought into place, whether they can effectively come to grips with a changing culture of faith is another issue entirely. Gathogo noted that Mackenzie is representative of the rise of new religious movements in 21st-century Africa.

“They interpret the Bible from an extremist position, and even avoid theological training, as they claim that the Holy Spirit is sufficient trainer,” he said. “They reject decency and eventually end up as con artists.”

Among this strain of preachers, “The leader is elevated to a deity, his word is law, and people are psyched to fear him,” he added.

If successful, Kenya’s laws may be looked at around the world as a way of reining in rogue operators, but they open up a legal and ethical minefield, not to mention the risk of turning pastors such as Mackenzie into martyrs.

For Gathogo, bringing in new standards for religious leaders speaks to broader issues of governance on the continent, where preachers are stepping in to fill the void left by states unable to meet people’s material needs, let alone their spiritual ones.

“Africa does not need strong men,” Gathogo said, “but strong institutions.”


Abduction and terrorism trial after boy found dead at New Mexico compound opens with mom's testimony

AP News


September 27, 2023


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal prosecutors presented tearful testimony Tuesday from the mother of a sickly toddler who was whisked away from his Georgia home by relatives without her permission to a remote desert encampment in northern New Mexico where he died.

Four family members, including the boy’s aunts, are facing kidnapping or terrorism charges, or both, that stem from an August 2018 raid in search of the 3-year-old boy at a squalid encampment near the Colorado line. Authorities said they found the suspects living with 11 hungry children without running water at the encampment encircled by berms of tires with an adjacent shooting range where guns and ammunition were seized.

The badly decomposed body of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj was eventually found in an underground tunnel at the compound.A

Abdul-Ghani’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, recounted her love and devotion to a cheerful son who lived with severe developmental disabilities and frequent seizures — and her shock when husband, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and his sibling accused her of casting spells on the boy.

“He accused me of black magic, I’m not that type of a woman to practice black magic,” said Ramzi, a native of Morocco who spoke in broken English.

Ramzi said her denials fell on deaf ears. She said her husband and his sister traveled abroad to learn more about alternative healing based on the Quran.

After she demanded a divorce, Ramzi said that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj took their son to a park and never returned. She tried unsuccessfully, she said, to track them by phone before turning to police and then child protective services.

Authorities allege the family engaged in firearms and tactical training in preparation for attacks against the government, tied to an apparent belief by some that the boy would be resurrected as Jesus Christ and then explain which corrupt government and private institutions needed be eliminated.

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the boy’s father, along with his sisters Hujrah and Subhanah Wahhaj, and the latter’s husband, Lucas Morton, were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, among other charges. Morton and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj were also charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. government personnel.

Because a cause of death was never determined federal prosecutors opted for kidnapping charges, but Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is the only one not yet charged with that because of his legal status as the boy’s father.

Prosecutors plan to present evidence that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and his partner Jany Leveille, a Haitian national, took Abdul-Ghani in December 2017 to resettle in New Mexico, where they performed daily prayer rituals over the boy as he cried and foamed at the mouth. They also allege the child was deprived of medication as his health failed. Leveille was initially charged with kidnapping and terrorism-related charges but she has agreed to accept a reduced sentence on weapons charges. She has not appeared at the trial.

Defense attorneys for sisters Hujrah and Subhanah Wahhaj told the jury Tuesday that terrorism allegations against the mothers and New York City natives are largely based on a fantastical diary written by Leveille about her belief that Abdul-Ghani would be resurrected.

“It’s all completely hypothetical,” said Donald Kochersberger who is representing Hujrah Wahhaj. “It’s all just a fantasy.” He said the family’s hardscrabble efforts to secure basic shelter in a harsh, remote environment are being misrepresented by prosecutors as terrorism.

He added that Abdul-Ghani’s death shortly after arriving in New Mexico was a shocking and sad outcome for a boy with fragile health but that what the government construes as kidnapping “really is just a family traveling together to New Mexico.”

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, who declined his right to an attorney, warned jurors that “the government will attempt to portray the closeness of family as terrorism.”

He urged the jurors to make up their own minds about the credibility of testimony gathered by the FBI from interviews with children.

Attorneys for the defendants have said previously that their clients would not be facing terrorism-related charges if they were not Muslim. The grandfather of the missing boy is the Muslim cleric Siraj Wahhaj, who leads a well-known New York City mosque that has attracted radicals over the years, including a man who later helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.

The elder Wahhaj watched the trial Tuesday afternoon from the courtroom gallery.

“I’m here with an open mind,” he said. “We’re told in my religion to stand up for justice even if it’s against your own family.”


Sep 27, 2023

The Far Right Germany bans ‘cult-like, deeply racist’ far-right group, carries out raids

Police raid homes of the Artgemeinschaft network members who sought to indoctrinate children with Nazi ideology.

Al Jazeera
September 27, 2023

German investigators have carried out raids across the country as Berlin banned a far-right group it described as a “cult-like, deeply racist and anti-Semitic association” that sought to indoctrinate children with Nazi ideology.

Police on Wednesday stormed 26 apartments belonging to 39 members of the Artgemeinschaft network in 12 states, including Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Brandenburg.

The association counts about 150 members and has links to several far-right groups, said the interior ministry.

It uses the cover of a “pseudo-religious Germanic belief in God to spread their worldview which violates human dignity”, said the ministry.

Using Nazi-era literature, the association sought to convert the young to adopt its race theories. It also ran an online bookstore that sought to radicalise and attract non-members.

“This is a further blow against right-wing extremism and against the intellectual agitators who still spread Nazi ideologies today,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser.

“This far-right group tried to raise new enemies of the constitution through the disgusting indoctrination of children and youths,” she added.

‘Extremist’ spectrum
Germany has banned a series of far-right groups in recent months.

Last week, it outlawed the local chapter of the US-based Hammerskins neo-Nazi group known for its white supremacist rock concerts.

There were about 38,800 people in the right-wing “extremist” spectrum in Germany in 2022, according to a report presented by the BfV federal domestic intelligence agency in June – up from 33,900 in 2021.

Convoy targets Sask. cult compound

Medicine Hat News
September 26, 2023

A criminologist who studies anti-government movements says communities and authorities need to take greater notice and action against conspiracy-fuelled groups like one setting up in a Saskatchewan village near Medicine Hat.

About 50 residents of Richmound, Sask. took part in a protest on Sunday, parading vehicles, farm equipment and honking horns around a former school where followers of “Queen Romana Didulo” have set up housing.

They told Alberta Newspaper reporters that they want her out of the village of about 150 residents, but as the group is on private property and since authorities don’t believe any crime has been committed there are few legal avenues to force them out.

The woman, who has tens of thousand online followers, claims to be the rightful monarch of Canada. For several years she has travelled across the country in an RV telling supporters she has forgiven their taxes and debts, will punish health workers for the COVID-19 response and is now the rightful ruler of Canada. Christine Sarteschi is a professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh who has written about the rise of anti-society groups and has followed Didulo’s rise in particular.

She said that community actions like Sunday’s in Richmound and a similar event in Kamsack, Sask., last week — where 200 townspeople and members of nearby First nation ushered Didulo supporters out of town under police escort — show community action can have an effect, but tensions can arise.

“Look at how we deal with potential fraud issues — governments could warn people about these people are this type of behaviour,” said Sarteschi in a phone interview with the News on Monday.

“Too often people will laugh at people like her, or tell jokes and think it’s funny, and I understand that to the degree. But it takes away from the potential seriousness of it, and the real people who are being harmed by believing in these false ideas.”

Some current residents and former residents who now live in Medicine Hat say they are concerned the village may have too low of a population to stage a proper opposition.

The RCMP or Saskatchewan government have not issued any formal statement.

Sarteschi believes the group has been welcomed to the village by some existing residents, but only has a core group of perhaps ten individuals who are likely looking to create a base for the winter.

They typically travel in an RV to meet up with other supporters while the leader issues statements about controlling the military, promising relief payments and assuring followers that actions current government and health officials are imminent.

“They think they’re above the law,” said Sarteschi. “She does dabble in some sovereign citizen beliefs, but she’s across the board, with some QAnon, believing in a number of conspiracy theories.”

“Sovereign citizens” is used to describe those who argue against the legitimacy of courts or police authority using convoluted legal arguments and unrelated documents like the Magna Carta, Maritime Law or the Geneva Convention, among others

“QAnon” came to the forefront in Untied States prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election when online movement argued that a second, secret government was actually control of that nation. (“Romana Didulo” is an anagram of “I am our Donald”).

Sarteschi says anti-government sentiment grew during the COVID pandemic and is now capitalizing on economic worries. That is finding a receptive audience among some people, she said.

The City of Red Deer reported in 2022 that six residents were in arrears on property taxes after arguing that as Didulo followers, their assessment were bogus.

At about the same time, several supporters were themselves arrested in Peterborough, Ont. when they attempted to enact citizen’s arrests on members of that city’s police force.

Just this weekend, Didulo declared that all MNRA technology — used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines — had been outlawed by her decree, and that all practitioners could be liable to face the death penalty.

“The attraction… is that she’s selling something to people that they want,” said Sarteschi. “If you follow her (Didulo says) you have no taxes, no mortgage, no utility bills, you’ll come into a great amount of wealth, she’s closing schools and replacing them, and curing homelessness…”

“It never occurs to some people to think that to stop paying my mortgage would be wrong. They think it’s government tyranny to have them pay a mortgage, partly because she’s telling them the government is stealing from them.”

“They’re convoluted ideas that people want to be true, so people start to hate the government or the utility company… It always surprises me, that people believe she is the new government, that she’s taken over and is the queen and the commander in chief. Things have changed.

“When the bailiff comes to the door to take their house, they are shocked by that.”

“It shows you the level of belief.”

Unification Church demands Japan's NHK cancel 'insulting' program

Mainichi Japan
September 26, 2023

TOKYO -- The Unification Church has published a protest against Japanese public broadcaster NHK, demanding that it stop airing and apologize for a program dealing with the religious group's recruitment methods.

NHK changed part of the program's title, which the group viewed as problematic, and aired it as scheduled. It is unusual for the Unification Church, now known formally as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, to demand the cancelation of a program before it is aired, and an expert pointed out that the group may have been seeking to discourage media coverage.

The program "Kikenna Sasayaki," or dangerous whispers, was aired late at night on Sept. 23. Based on court documents from a lawsuit filed against the church by a former female member -- a suit she won -- the program included a dramatization of past attempts to recruit believers, including hiding the group's name and door-to-door sales tactics disguised as charitable activities.

 This screenshot from the Unification Church's webpage shows a letter of protest against the NHK program "Kikenna Sasayaki" (dangerous whispers).

This screenshot from the Unification Church's webpage shows a letter of protest against the NHK program "Kikenna Sasayaki" (dangerous whispers).

Initially, the program was introduced on NHK's website under the title "Akuma no Sasayaki," or the devil's whispers. The Unification Church posted a letter of protest dated Sept. 21 on its website. At the time, the program title had already been changed to "Kikenna Sasayaki," but the church stated in the letter, "The program has already been introduced and publicized by multiple celebrities under the name 'Akuma no Sasayaki,' resulting in serious damage to our organization's reputation."

The letter also demanded that the program be canceled and an apology for phrases including, "victims whose lives have been ruined," which had originally been on the broadcaster website but have now been removed. The group claimed that the expressions "make it sound as if our organization is fraudulently inducing believers to join us and ruining their lives," and that the terminology is "clearly insulting."

Before the letter, a person believed to be an active believer wrote on "X," formally known as Twitter, that they had "called NHK in protest while crying loudly." On the other hand, once the group raised its objections, former believers and others wrote and shared posts calling for people to watch the program, and the show gained more attention.

Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun, NHK's public relations bureau said of the program, "Based on the records of an actual court case, it attempts to clarify why people are captivated by illegal solicitation and why they lose their composure with these dangerous whispers, by using a reenactment and psychological analysis to show the mechanisms of the mind in that moment."

Regarding the circumstances surrounding the program title change, the PR bureau commented, "Sometimes the title is changed before the program is aired based on a comprehensive judgment."

Journalist Eito Suzuki, who is familiar with Unification Church issues, said, "The program used facts from the court documents, and it is not the kind of content that the religious group would usually ask to be canceled. Protests by the church have become more intense since (the government's) request (to the court) to issue an order to formally dissolve the organization. The latest move was probably aimed at making the media think, 'This group is troublesome, so let's not get involved with it.'"

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Digital News Group)

Germany cracks down on neo-Nazi sect Artgemeinschaft for targeting children

Michael Ertl
BBC News
September 27, 2023

Germany has banned the far-right sect Artgemeinschaft for spreading Nazi ideology to children and young people.

The country's interior minister called the group "deeply racist and antisemitic" and said it was trying "to raise new enemies of the constitution".

Artgemeinschaft used Nazi-era literature and cultural events to spread its ideology.

Police have raided dozens of homes and offices linked to the group in 12 German states.

"This is another hard blow against right-wing extremism and against the intellectual arsonists who continue to spread Nazi ideologies to this day," German interior minister Nancy Faeser said.

Artgemeinschaft roughly translates to "racial community" and, according to the interior ministry, had about 150 members.

The ministry said the group was giving its members instructions about picking partners with a North or Central European background, in line with their ideology of "racial preservation".

The sect also ran an online bookstore and regularly held cultural events that attracted up to several hundred people. It described itself as "Germany's biggest pagan community".

The authorities say the group used this cover of "pseudo-religious Germanic beliefs to spread their worldview which violates human dignity".

The ban also includes the sect's website, its publications and Familienwerk, another association connected with it.

Germany last week outlawed Hammerskins, another neo-Nazi group, which was known for its role in organising far-right concerts and selling racist music.

Hammerskins, founded in the US in the late 1980s, was the last major right-wing skinhead organisation in Germany after another group, Blood and Honour, had been banned in 2000.

It was heavily involved in setting up neo-Nazi music labels, selling antisemitic records and organising clandestine music events.

"Right-wing extremism has many faces," Germany's interior minister said, adding that Artgemeinschaft had acted differently than Hamerskins but was "no less dangerous".

Artgemeinschaft is one of Germany's oldest neo-Nazi groups. It played a key role in connecting different far-right and neo-Nazi groups in Germany, Ms Faeser said.

Stephan Ernst, the man who murdered prominent regional politician Walter Lübcke in 2019 in a shooting motivated by "racism and xenophobia", was a member of the group, according to German intelligence.

German media also report members of the group had links with Ralf Wohlleben, a neo-Nazi who was convicted for supporting members of a notorious cell that carried out 10 racially motivated murders in Germany.

Germany's domestic intelligence agency estimates there are 38,800 people active in the country's right-wing extremist scene, with more than a third of them considered "potentially violent".

Twin Flames Docuseries Dives Deeper Into Couple Behind Matchmaking Cult

The three-part Amazon Prime Video series Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe expands on an explosive investigation first published in Vanity Fair.

Vanity Fair
September 26, 2023

When Alice Hines was writing her explosive exposé on the controversial couple at the center of the Twin Flames Universe, she always thought there would be more story to tell. And what better way to do that than in a documentary series? “These people really kind of come alive when you watch the videos of them in a way that you can do in writing, but it’s hard to capture sometimes just how wild the Twin Flames Universe actually is,” Hines tells Vanity Fair.

The three-part series Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe, which will debut on Prime Video on October 6, digs deeper into the claims of Shaleia and Jeff Ayan, who founded the Twin Flames Universe, an online community that sells courses and seminars to help members find their one true love (or “twin flame”). As seen in the trailer exclusively debuting below, the new series features testimony from former members of the group—which many have described as a cult—who share how Shaleia and Jeff use their claims that they are chosen by God to compel members into changing themselves in drastic ways, even influencing some to change their gender identity. (In Hines's 2020 exposé, she recounts how she and Jeff looked up the definition of "cult," and he later acknowledged in a video that he was a cult leader.)

As of now, she’s the only journalist to ever visit them at their home, which she captured on video. “Going to their house was something that even most of their followers never do. This is an organization that operates almost exclusively online,” she says. “So people are accessing their content on YouTube, on these private paid Zoom sessions, but people don’t really get to see behind the curtain, which, incredibly, I did.”

The first trailer features several former members describing the relatable feeling of loneliness that led them to discover the Twin Flames Universe. There’s a great deal of footage from Jeff and Shaleia’s course videos, along with commentary from Hines herself. The series will look back at Jeff and Shaleia’s personal history, with interviews with their friends and family.

The series also looks at the fallout from Hines’s article, when many members of the Twin Flames Universe did leave—as well as the current state of the group as it’s continued to grow over the years. “That, to me, was another reason why I couldn’t really drop this topic because it’s not a purely historical phenomenon,” says Hines. “They are still recruiting people, and they primarily target people who are lonely or brokenhearted, people who are unlucky in love.”

When the new series reaches audiences in October, Hines says she hopes that it will both discourage people from joining the Twin Flames Universe and make audiences aware of the many other programs that prey on people’s loneliness and desire for a partner. She says the documentary shows how the organization “dupes people with the promise of love. There’s all of these ways that people can kind of get tricked and find not love, but something that’s actually a lot of times traumatic.”

Rebecca Ford

Rebecca Ford is the senior awards correspondent at Vanity Fair, covering awards season’s Emmy and Oscar contenders. She previously worked at The Hollywood Reporter as the senior awards editor and a film reporter. A past honoree of the Gold House A100 list and a boardmember of the LA Press Club,... Read more

Sep 26, 2023

'Extremely alarming': Frustrations mount in Sask. village as residents protest 'QAnon queen'

Rory MacLean

CTV News

September 24, 2023


Residents of a small village in southwestern Saskatchewan took to their trucks on Sunday to protest their town’s newest resident — a woman who claims to have legal standing as ‘queen’ of Canada.

Romana Didulo, the leader of a fringe conspiracy group who was forced out of Kamsack, Sask. on Sept. 13, has been camped out on a resident’s property in the village of Richmound since last week — at the community’s shuttered school.

The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League describes Didulo as a "Canadian QAnon figure" who has called for "violent action" against those who help administer COVID-19 vaccines to kids.

When Didulo arrived in Kamsack, about 200 individuals from the town and nearby First Nations confronted the group and escorted them out of town.

Now, secure on private property in Richmound, some residents fear it might not be so easy to push her and her followers out.

“Obviously the rest of the town does not want her here,” said one resident who asked to remain anonymous.

She said about fifty residents staged a protest on Sunday, driving around Didulo’s compound and blaring their horns.

“I have reached out to our MLAs, the provincial government, the federal government … I have hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock,” she said.

“We were just told they have to do something illegal before anyone can do anything.”

An officer working out of the Leader RCMP detachment told CTV News last week that police are aware Didulo is in the area and are monitoring the situation.

The Mountie said Didulo's group has not broken any laws.

The resident who spoke to CTV News said she was shocked to read about Didulo’s violent rhetoric, and the actions of her followers.

At a protest in Peterborough last year, two men were charged after Didulo directed her followers to place police officers under citizen’s arrest.

“It’s extremely, extremely alarming,” she said.

“I’m not necessarily scared of … the ones that are in the building. I’m scared of what she’s putting out to her followers and the followers that potentially could come here and do something.”

Richmound, Sask. is located north of Maple Creek near the Alberta border – about 445 kilometres west of Regina.

-With files from Wayne Mantyka, Drew Postey and Abby O’Brien.


Sep 25, 2023

The Wellness Hustle

Every year, thousands of Canadians are reeled into multi-level-marketing schemes on promises of wealth and healing.

The rover


September 25, 2023

Rachel* used to think she'd be medicated for the rest of her life.

By her mid 20s, she was on antidepressants, took sedatives for her anxiety, stimulants for her ADHD and sleeping aids to counter the effects of the stimulants.

It started in elementary school with Ritalin. The drug helped Rachel's grades improve but she says it sapped the creativity she loved about herself. A few years later, she started taking Accutane to treat her acne but Rachel says it also gave her suicidal thoughts (a common side effect in the now discontinued drug).

By the time she was in high school, Rachel's principal insisted on watching her take her Ritalin twice a day.

"He'd literally check under my tongue to make sure I took the pill," she said. "And then he'd sign my agenda. Every day. My grades went up but everything that made me me … went down the drain."

Once Rachel became a mother, she finally had enough of the pills, the side effects and health problems that never seemed to get any better. So she radically changed her diet, started doing yoga every day, and she joined Purium ― a multi-level marketing (MLM) company that sells "superfood" supplements.

Rachel tells her story in a YouTube video called "How I got off all my medications". The clip links to an online store where you can order Purium's "Ultimate Lifestyle Transformation" package for $500. The order includes enough vegan proteins and "power shakes" for a 30-day cleanse to detoxify your body, boost your energy, stabilize your mood and give you more restful sleep. That's what Purium claims, anyway.

On Instagram, Rachel writes about how selling Purium products allowed her to heal herself and earn a living while working from home.

"I'm so grateful that my way of making money is dependent on helping people heal themselves and help others," she writes, under one post. "If you already have a heart to help and change the world then I have your vehicle to let you get compensated so you can be the light."

In Rachel's world, Purium is a quasi-religious experience, bringing women together, helping them enrich themselves and empowering thousands to embrace healthier habits and ultimately change the world. It's almost too good to be true.

And maybe it is.

Two of Purium's biggest salespeople are speaking at Lola Rosa Place des Arts for a "Superfood Social" on Oct. 1. Just like Young Living or Amway, Purium is part of Canada's $4 billion direct sales industry, which employs over 1 million people across the country.

Nearly 90 per cent of the industry's salesforce are women who tap into their social network and recruit people to sell under them in order to move up the ladder. The more people who work in your "downstream" ― as the industry calls it ― the higher your commission gets and if your recruits put their own team together, you get a piece of that too.

In theory, there's a whole universe of cash waiting to be made. But in practice, almost no one involved in MLMs actually makes money. Less than a quarter of MLM salespeople turn a profit and nearly half lose money, according to a 2018 study by the Federal Trade Commission. Most of those fortunate enough to earn something make less than minimum wage.

What's troubling, in cases like Rachel's ― whose sales pitch includes the unfounded claim that Purium is a cure-all for depression and other complex health problems ― salespeople often violate industry regulations that could open them up to fines.

"In MLMs, you're not supposed to make performance claims beyond what you're legally allowed to say on the package," said Peter Maddox, president of the Direct Sellers Association of Canada ― a group that represents MLMs and lobbies the federal government on their behalf. 

"Someone's personal experience can be okay, but if they're creating a narrative with 'By me having that lived experience, you can too!' it starts to get a little bit dangerous."

And because MLM reps are independent contractors, they are personally liable for fines handed down by the Competition Bureau of Canada ― which protects consumers from fraudulent business practices. In 2004, the bureau fined two small business owners $150,000 for deceptive marketing related to the sale of Herbalife Nutrition shakes. 

But despite what some insiders call "a culture of routinely deceptive claims" from salespeople across Canada, fines from the Competition Bureau are exceedingly rare. In fact, there hasn't been a charge against an MLM in over 19 years, according to the Competition Bureau.

"I've got to say that's astounding to me because some of our sales pitches were aggressively illegal," said one MLM owner who left the industry two years ago. "When you're claiming that your cancer went away after discovering a line of supplements, you're making a fraudulent claim. And our sales people were saying shit like that all the time. 

"They may not have said, 'This product cures cancer' or 'I cured my depression using this' but any reasonable person could infer that. And many did."


Emily Paulsen was a successful MLM salesperson who quit her job to become one of the industry's most fervent critics. 

She says that, from her own experience, it's alarmingly common for reps to make illegal claims about the products they're selling.

"What you need to consider is the people making these claims are financially benefiting from them," said Paulsen, who wrote about her experience in the critically-acclaimed book Hey Hun. "They may believe in what they're saying but, in my experience, it's not like they're consulting doctors or any kind of empirical research. It's just about getting other people to believe the claims so they can be brought into the fold and sell product for you.

"And these are extremely dangerous claims. Convincing someone they can stop taking medication and replace it with a supplement or a protein shake, that's blatantly illegal and you're putting people's health at risk.   

"The companies will tell their reps 'Don't make health claims, don't make financial claims' and that exonerates them. And if someone steps over the line and gets caught, they just terminate them. Because these women are just contractors with little legal protections."

The Rover contacted Purium and provided a link to the "How I got off all my medications" video, asking the company if they believe it's an illegal claim but, despite multiple requests, they have chosen not to respond. A review of Rachel's Instagram reveals a series of unsubstantiated statements and insinuations about Purium's supplements.

In one post ― which depicts Rachel holding 16 pills in the palm of her hand ― she writes that these plant-based "superfoods" are substitutes for meals. In a story on Rachel's Instagram, a child holds up a fistfull of pills under the caption "Like mother like daughter." Another post claims "you can effectively kill (intestinal) parasites during a full moon" to help with depression, sugar cravings and insomnia.

Though many of these testimonials are carefully written ― the benefits are often insinuated with terms like "has been proven to" or "may help with" ― Rachel's Instagram links to her Purium sales page. A review of a dozen other Quebec-based Purium reps shows a pattern of borderline and sometimes plainly illegal claims.

One rep said they got rid of a chronic fungal infection that plagued them for years simply by detoxing with Purium products. Another wrote that they "heal" their brain by using a Purium cleanse that costs $500. Some claim the products "have been proven" to reverse the effects of gum recession.

Jennifer* is a former MLM sales rep who recently left the industry. She says the pressure on individual reps becomes unbearable. Worn out from all the sales pitches and desperate to impress the person who recruited them, she says they knowingly exaggerate the product's benefits.

"It consumes you, you lose yourself in the sales pitch and your life just becomes selling, selling, selling," said Jennifer*, who did not want her real name published for fear or reprisals from her former company. 

"Because all of these people who mentor you, who invite you to dinner, who call you their family, they will turn on you the minute you start to question the products. They will turn on you when you underperform. And I get it. They're under the same pressure from the people on top of them."


Jennifer got her start in the industry with Young Living  ― a wellness company that sells essential oils using the MLM model. She says that her mentors were constantly telling her she was just a few big sales away from having her dreams come true. If she could just get those two or three high-performing salespeople under her, she'd be able to work from home, make a living working part time and have more quality time for her husband. 

For a long time, she believed this was within reach.

This too is a common selling point on the social media feeds of sales reps like Rachel and others. They're encouraged to use terms like "time freedom" or "take control of your life" over sunwashed pictures of them playing with the children at the beach.

One former rep said she would go on a two-week vacation with her family and continue using photos from the trip for months to make it seem like she was always on vacation.

"They really want you to craft this false reality," said the former rep. "Sure it's not illegal, no one's literally saying 'If you join my MLM you'll be rich' but you're manipulating them. Because that's what your own mentor did to attract you. 

"So you go on Instagram and show people this perfect life when, in reality, it's all a mirage. For all the posts about my family and the freedom of owning my own business, you didn't see all the arguing, all the stress over paying our bills and the sleepless nights."

In Jennifer's case, she was working every night, spending less and less time with her husband so she could keep growing her business. At her peak, she put in upwards of 50 hours a week and had 13 sales reps working under her. Back then, Rachel was making less than $500 a month.

A colleague of Jennifer's, who we'll call April, had built a customer base of over 300 people ― including 30 reps ― and worked every day to grow her business. At its most lucrative, the business was pulling in $2,500 a month. That's less than minimum wage.

April, who also worked with Young Living, got into MLMs because it was the first time she felt so welcome in a community of women. But when she started questioning some of the company's business practices and the claims some of its reps made, she was ostracized. After leaving Young Living, most of her "sisters" stopped talking to her.

"It's a weird dynamic that develops in MLMs. You start to feel like you belong to the person who recruited you and the people you recruited belong to you," Jennifer said. "So when the person you recruited leaves, it feels like a betrayal and you're almost encouraged to shun them. Especially if they start selling for another MLM.

"The most fucked up part of this is that it radically changes how you start to look at relationships. When you meet someone for the first time and you form a good connection, you stop thinking of them as people or potential friends. All you see is a new recruit, a potential client, a buyer. So when you're asking for their phone number or social media, you have zero interest in friendship. It's all a hustle, it's all a grift."

Paulsen says one of the true dangers of MLMs is they turn salespeople into evangelists, that the industry uses the same sort of "cultish" techniques to separate people from their support networks. But they do so using the language of wellness.

"It's not sales, it's a mission, it's 'life changing' and 'empowering' and 'a gift you give others,'" Paulsen said. "But really it's all about getting people into the funnel, grooming people into the business. Most people who get into the industry, it's through a friend or family member. So you think, 'Well I know and trust this person, why would they lead me astray? I want to be a part of that success. I've been offered this gift and now I'll share it with my friends.' 

"But then you're taught that if someone doesn't buy products off you or if someone questions the company, then they are against you. And that drives you from people, in your real life, who can offer you perspective about what's going on. 

"They want to help you see that you're going down a dangerous path but that help is seen as an attack. So it drives you deeper into the MLM. And your MLM 'family' is never going to question what you're doing because they're making money off you."


The number of Canadians who participate MLMs jumped by 20 per cent during the pandemic. 

They may not generate much wealth to their labour force but MLMs are a massive part of the direct sales economy in Canada, which employs roughly 1.1 million people and generates $1.5 billion in tax revenue every year, according to the DSA. At a time when the ability to work from home is a growing factor in people's career choice, it's easy to see the draw towards direct sales.

And despite nebulous claims from individual sales reps, most of the supplements sold by these companies, including Purium, can be beneficial to a person's health. There's a substantial amount of research that links gut health to mental health and there are an alarming amount of toxins in the foods we eat every day. 

So it's not like the message of eating healthier and reading labels is a bad thing.

Even though the lopsided structure of MLMs may seem immoral, it's legal. 

Unlike in the U.S. and other jurisdictions, Canadian MLMs are not allowed to coerce their reps into buying thousands of dollars worth of inventory they won't be able to sell. All sales go directly from the manufacturer to the consumer. It's also illegal for MLMs to pay or promote their reps simply on the basis of recruiting other people. In other words, unlike in a pyramid scheme ― where the goal is to get as many people into the company as possible ― the law states MLMs have to focus on selling products over recruiting new salespeople.

"Most people in the industry, they're doing it to make a little bit of money and get some free products," Maddox said. "Of course there are bad actors and bad MLMs and when they do something bad it reflects poorly on all of us. We want to weed them out of the industry as well."

That said, the fact that Canada's Competition Bureau hasn't filed charges against a single MLM member in 20 years sort of undercuts the argument that the industry is well-regulated. The Direct Sales Association of Canada has a cozy relationship with Ottawa, lobbying the federal government on 10 different files this year alone. 

The DSA has met with Members of Parliament whose job it is to regulate federal commerce and policy advisers from the Minister of Health. Earlier this year, the DSA posted photos of their members drinking wine with MPs at a luncheon on Parliament Hill, during a trip where they discussed preserving the independent contractor status ― and therefore limiting the MLMs legal obligations to their salespeople ― of folks working in direct sales. 

When reached for comment, the office of Health Minister Mark Holland refused to discuss the subject of its meeting with the DSA, opting instead to issue a statement.

"We encourage all Canadians to engage with us on the work we're doing to help improve healthcare in Canada," the statement reads. "We communicate broadly and constructively with stakeholders with the goal to always ensure the safety, health and wellbeing of Canadians."

Paulsen says that, in the United States, lobbying is how MLMs keep the government out of their business. 

"They lobby politicians on both sides of the aisle, there's millions going towards those efforts," Paulsen said. "So there's a financial incentive for politicians not to get involved. Betsy DeVos (who served as secretary of education for the Trump Administration), her husband runs an MLM. Donald Trump had an MLM. (Tennessee Republican Senator) Marsha Blackburn comes from the MLM space."

In fact, Blackburn was given an award by the American DSA in 2018 for her work championing pro-MLM legislation in congress.

And while the industry resists regulation, people like April, Jennifer and Rachel get roped in on unrealistic promises of wealth and freedom. 

There's also a growing body of evidence linking the wellness industry to COVID-19 disinformation and political extremism. Last year's Freedom Convoy in Ottawa brought together white nationalists and QAnon conspiracy theorists like Alexis Cosette Trudel with wellness influencers like Amélie Paul and some of the most successful MLM reps in Canada.

Though most of the wellness crowd were merely in Ottawa to protest COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates, some were drawn deeper into a brand of extremism that advocates for a violent takeover of the government.

Paulsen says these may be fringe cases but they're the product of a culture that rejects outside criticism, balks at government regulation and isolates salespeople from their own families.

"You're being groomed, it's as simple as that," Paulsen said. "You're living in an insular world that gets you in so deep that you can't leave. Because maybe you've alienated yourself from your family and you feel like you can't go back. Because the only people you interact with are other MLM salespeople. There's a lot of shame when you want to leave."

When Jennifer finally left Young Living for another MLM, she became the target of a smear campaign from her former mentors. She was accused of trying to poach salespeople, of being duplicitous and ultimately rejected by people she once considered family.

"These were my people, we were going to change the world together," Jennifer said. "But then you leave and you start to hear these rumours about yourself and people stop returning your calls. And maybe that was a warning to the others, you know? 'If you leave, we'll bash you good.' It was so toxic and I feel a lot of guilt that I was roped in and even more guilt that I roped others in with me.

"Eventually, I just ran out of steam and couldn't take the bullshit anymore. So I left and one of the first things my husband said was, 'Wow, I'm so happy to have you back.' Instead of feeling like a traitor, I just felt like myself again."

*The sources asked to not have their real names published for fear of reprisals from former colleagues 

About the Artist

Fabiana Margarita is a passionate graphic designer and illustrator based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). Born in Venezuela, she is deeply committed to giving voice to the voiceless and representing her community through art. Her biggest goal is to use her creative talents to advocate for gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and social justice, all while adding vibrant colours to the world of design.





Award-winning journalist, mediocre cook