Concerns raised as controversial faith-based women’s centre buys Halifax thrift store

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Controversial Halifax women’s centre buys thrift store
WATCH: There are questions about a women’s centre in Halifax that seems to be expanding its operations. The Open Door Centre recently acquired a thrift store in the north end. As Ashley Field reports, some are concerned that shopping at the store would mean supporting a centre that they say has been less than transparent. – Mar 18, 2022

A controversial faith-based women’s centre in Halifax is expanding their operations to open a thrift store in the city’s north end, which is raising concerns among critics.

The Open Door Centre recently purchased the Bay B Boutique, a baby and children’s consignment store on Novalea Drive, with plans to open on Monday.

According to the centre’s website, 100 per cent of the proceeds from the thrift store will “fund the essential programs and services Open Door Centre offers.”

The centre’s website describes the organization as a “healthy life choices centre” that offers free counselling and resources for exploited and trafficked youth, pregnant people, and those who have been “affected by pornography.”

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The website does not make the centre’s stance on abortion clear, but Open Door is included on a list of 300 anti-choice groups across the country compiled by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

The executive director of Open Door, Heather Harman, along with her husband Chris, are also involved in Power to Change Ministries, an evangelical Christian organization.

Upon visiting the Open Door website’s home page, the religious affiliation isn’t immediately apparent. Users have to navigate to the bottom of the centre’s “About Us” page to see they are a member of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.

‘Red flags’

Open Door’s mission, vision and values page says it is a “faith-based organization offering spiritual support for those who self identify they want that type of support.”

But according to a woman who used their services a few years ago, religious messaging was pushed on her despite not wanting that “spiritual support.”

The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she first went to Open Door for post-abortion care in the fall of 2017. Global News has verified that she was a client through email records.

The Open Door Centre operates out of north-end Halifax. Ashley Field/Global News

During her first appointment, the woman said she was told that although Open Door is faith-based, they offer a non-religious route as well, which she opted for.

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She said the format of the program involved her being given a booklet, doing readings, and discussing the lessons during a follow-up session.

She says the booklet, which she no longer has, appeared religious — but she said she went into it with an open mind.

“I just kept trying to believe that they were good people, and that I could still get something out of it,” she said.

But she said as time went on, she began to get skeptical, especially when one of the lessons focused on guilt and shame. In her final session, the woman said she was told she needed to ask God for forgiveness.

“And that’s when red flags were up for me, and sirens went off in my head,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need to get through the rest of this session, leave, and never come back again.’”

The woman said she felt deceived by their practices, because she didn’t get a religious impression from the Open Door website when she was looking into them, and it took a few lessons before they began inserting religious messaging.

Sociologist Ardath Whynacht says it’s this lack of transparency that raises concerns. She says people who are using their services might not know what they are signing up for.

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“There are faith-based programs and services in Halifax that are excellent, that are ethical, that do great work in our community,” said Whynacht. “Open Door Centre is not one of them.”

‘Deceptive service’

The associate professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. said she’s been aware of Open Door for years. The organization has been in operation since 1987 and used to use the name Halifax Metro Crisis Pregnancy Centre.

Whynacht used to work as a youth worker and said she heard from young people and other workers that the organization was providing a “deceptive service.”

“When youth went through this service, it appeared that what they were providing was anti-choice, highly fundamentalist religious counselling that the youth did not consent to because that part of the service was not indicated up-front,” she said.

Sociologist Ardath Whynacht is concerned about Open Door’s practices and lack of transparency. Submitted by Ardath Whynacht

With Open Door taking over Bay B Boutique, Whynacht said thrift stores can be an important hub for parents and families seeking affordable clothing for their children, and is disappointed with the “brazen move” to buy it.

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“There’s a lot of potential for community building and connection among young families,” she said, “and it’s concerning to me that an organization who uses deception in order to preach religious gospel … replaced what was previously a really nice community space.”

In an interview, Hayley Mills, the former owner of Bay B Boutique, stressed she was in no way affiliated with Open Door and was not familiar with their work.

She initially listed the store for sale in 2019, but took it off the market when the pandemic hit. It was re-listed in the summer of 2021, and since then Open Door has been the only organization to submit an offer.

Mills said she decided to sell because the business was no longer a good fit for her.

“I had to choose myself and my family, and that’s what worked for me,” she said.

The Open Door Centre recently purchased the Bay B Boutique in Halifax’s north end. Ashley Field/Global News

Mills said she believes the business model will stay the same, and the name of the business came with the sale. She said she has not had any contact with the organization since the sale was finalized.

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“Everyone’s allowed to have their opinions,” she said of those critical about Open Door taking over the store. “It would be heartbreaking for the store to not survive, because the store itself is a service that struggling parents, financially, need. It’s a community space.

“But other than that, I don’t care what happens, to be honest. I’m just happy to move on.”

Click to play video: 'Women’s advocacy groups hope Nova Scotia inquiry will take trauma-informed approach'
Women’s advocacy groups hope Nova Scotia inquiry will take trauma-informed approach

Global News visited Open Door’s newly-acquired store on Thursday, however, the Harmans declined to be interviewed.

“Part of us would like to get the other side out, the other part of us is like, we don’t really want to add any fuel to the fire,” said Chris Harman.

Asked specifically about their stance on abortion, and how they respond to the allegations of deception, Heather Harman said in an email Friday: “Our website is up to date and explains what we offer. Thank you for offering the opportunity for an interview, but at this time I have no comment.”

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‘Vague’ website

On its website, Open Door advertises “options discussions” through its division called Pregnancy Pathways.

Pregnancy Pathways does list three options available for an unplanned pregnancy— parenting, abortion and adoption — but there is a stark tonal difference in how they are described.

While acknowledging an unplanned pregnancy can “cause fear about the future,” the Pregnancy Pathways website said parenting can “be an exciting, rewarding experience.”

The three unplanned pregnancy options on the Pregnancy Pathways website. Pregnancy Pathways

Adoption “may be a good option for you if you find yourself financially, emotionally or otherwise unable to parent,” the website added.

In terms of abortion, it said “some women believe that abortion is their best and only option.” It went on to say some feel “ambivalent” about abortion, and others feel “pressured to consider abortion.”

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“You have a right to get all the facts,” it said. “We are here to help you sort through your thoughts, feelings and questions about abortion.”

In a statement, Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said it’s common for so-called “crisis pregnancy centres” to be “vague and deceptive because they try to actively hide or downplay their abortion stance in order to better attract (clients).”

She also noted Open Door’s emphasis on post-abortion support, “which is something that most (crisis pregnancy centres) specialize in, with the underlying anti-choice assumption that abortion harms women.”

Julie Veinot, the executive director of South Shore Sexual Health, said she couldn’t speak to Open Door directly, since there is not much information about their practices on their website.

However, she said crisis pregnancy centres are often associated with Christian ministries, and their goal is typically to “reduce or prevent” abortions — often by giving inaccurate information, such as drawing a link between abortions and breast cancer.

“Ultimately, it makes it so people don’t get to make an informed decision about medical care, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

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“It’s not empowering for people to receive misinformation and base their medical decisions on that.”

No clear answers

In an interview, Miia Suokonautio, the executive director of YWCA Halifax, said they previously considered partnering with Open Door for the Trafficking and Exploitation Service System (TESS) Partnership, which is a collaboration of community leaders and organizations working with children and youth involved in Canada’s sex trade.

However, Suokonautio said there was a “quiet parting of ways when we realized we weren’t on the same page.”

She, too, was concerned about a lack of transparency and the vague language used to describe their services.

Suokonautio said it was unknown what exactly their programs offered, and that the YWCA has tried — and failed — to gain clarity about Open Door’s position on abortion.

“We’ve asked very pointed questions … ‘are you a pro-choice organization?’ And we’ve never really gotten a clear answer,” she said. “If you are not pro-choice, that’s fine, whatever, that’s your thing. But you just need to own it, and we won’t make referrals there.”

She said, especially when dealing with sensitive matters like abortion and sexual exploitation, the lack of transparency is concerning.

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“Being transparent with community, and being transparent with service users, I believe, is fundamental,” she said.

“It’s really around doing our very, very, very best, to make sure our participants have informed consent.”

For people seeking information about an abortion, they can contact the Nova Scotia Women’s Choice Clinic at 1-833-352-0719.

— with files from Ashley Field

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