TRAVEL

Disputing tours that heal

John Masters February 8 1982
TRAVEL

Disputing tours that heal

John Masters February 8 1982

Disputing tours that heal

TRAVEL

John Masters

Twenty-five years ago, when Donald Douglas was in his teens and working as a magician’s assistant, 50 cents was a reasonable price to pay for sideshow sleight-of-hand tricks. But inflation aside, Douglas, now 44, and his wife, Valerie, 43, were outraged at having to pay $4,506 last year for a 17-day junket to a faith-healing centre in the Philippines and getting, they say, little more than the same carny conjuring Donald Douglas had learned as a boy.

Now the farming couple from Granum, Alta., 120 km south of Calgary, has filed suit in the British Columbia Supreme Court against Landmark Travel Ltd. of Vancouver, which sold them the tour. The Douglases are suing for damages for mental distress, physical inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of their holiday. They also claim that the “psychic surgery” performed on Mrs. Douglas for heart problems, headaches and adhesions was a fraud and that the “healer” slipped animal tissue and chicken blood into the procedure.

“When you stand behind the faith healers,” notes Mr.

Douglas, “they get very nervous. Most magicians do.”

The Douglases’ action, believed the first of its kind, is unnerving the dozen Alberta operators for whom the Philippines faith-healing tours have become a lucrative business.

(Although the suit names a B.C. company, nearly all the activity takes place in oil-rich Alberta.) As many as 5,000 Albertans, and growing numbers of health seekers from the rest of Canada, will plunk down about $2,500 each this year for a 2 xk -week stay in sunny, gaudy Baguio, a resort city 200 km northwest of Manila. Most of the pilgrims will be over 40, suifering afflictions that range from cataracts to cancer. For some the trip will be a last desperate gamble. (Eleven Canadians were killed last week when their bus to Baguio collided with another just south of the city).

Faith-healing tours have been available in Canada for nearly a decade. Ed-

monton travel agent Jean Zrien of Odyssey Travel Ventures, the madonna for South Seas shaman seekers, has been taking groups to Baguio seven times a year since 1974, frequently with more than 100 per flight. But only in the past year or so has interagent competition become heated, igniting into lurid newspaper ads showing actual gory “operations” and promotional shows travelling rural Alberta, such as the one that attracted the Douglases. Held in community halls, local motels or someone’s house, the sales pitch often includes color slides and home movies of faith healers at work. For converted tour operators such as Zrien and Norman Brown, 60, of Red Deer, who credits faith healing with saving him from a possible heart bypass operation, the morality of soliciting patrons for this dubious art is untroubling. Those less convinced can take comfort in the generous commissions offered by airlines flying to the area: up to 25 per cent for group packages, considerably above the industry standard of eight to 10 per cent for individual bookings.

In a country where every cab driver knows a faith healer, “Reverend” Tony Agpaoa, with whom nearly all Western Canada tour organizers deal, has gone to some lengths in making his service more palatable to Western tastes. Rev. Tony’s flock stays in western-style hotels near his centre, which was the destination of those killed last week. Agpaoa, allegedly through God, expands a single pore on the patient’s body by laying his hands on the afflicted spot, removes “foreign” matter—often blood clots or calcium deposits—then shrinks the pore, leaving no scar. Skeptics profess the healer actually produces only animal tissue that he has previously con-

cealed. No money is charged, although donations are encouraged. Finally, Agpaoa offers what amounts to a sixmonth guarantee on his healing—patients leave their pictures and have prayers said to them at the centre for the next six months.

Surprisingly, few people complain publicly. John Rowe, of H & M Travel in Calgary, books tours for organizer Lou Seely of Red Deer, but says he stays otherwise uninvolved. “If people started complaining, we would stop immediately,” he says, “but nobody is complaining.” At least not to him. The Alberta RCMP reports dozens of calls protesting the tours over the past three or four years, but there is little it can do. Sgt. Fred Erler of the commercial crime section of the Lethbridge RCMP, which is currently investigating complaints from the Douglases and others, admits the faith-healing tours “are a very difficult thing to try and take any criminal action against. The Rev. Tony is not about to leave the Philippines and come to Canada, and the actual fraud is taking place in the Philippines.”

However achieved, some “cures” appear genuine. Cornel Ball, 20, of Red Deer, was paralysed from the neck down after a motorcycle accident last spring. Less than three weeks after undergoing psychic surgery in the Phil-

ippines, along with acupuncture, massage and some electrical stimulation, Ball flabbergasted his friends upon his return by getting out of his wheelchair and walking with the aid of his girlfriend. “Rev. Tony knew exactly the spots to work on, even without me

telling him,” raves Ball. “He opened up my neck and removed some clumps of coagulated blood. And it wasn’t chicken blood.” (Counters Mrs. Douglas: “I’ve cleaned enough chickens in my life; I know the smell.”)

Researchers, moreover, are beginning to think faith can heal, according to Judy Pugh, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Studies have shown, she says, that “those kinds of manipulations [performed by faith healers] alter not only the person’s experience of his illness but also the biochemical processes of the body. It’s the placebo effect.”

But even the powers of mind over matter may not be enough to save faithhealing tour operators from a deluge of court actions from other unhappy customers if the Douglases win their test case. “Our main objective is to make people aware of the truth,” says Donald Douglas, who thinks others have remained silent through fear or embarrassment. Any such assault wouldn’t bother most travel operators, says Les Cassettari, president of the Alliance of Canadian Travel Agents—B.C., which represents more than 80 per cent of the province’s travel operators. “If I had to sell faith-healing tours to make money, I’d do something else,” he says.