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Followers of a man now facing multiple counts of sexual assault are buying property around Fort Assiniboine, Alta. Uneasy locals are asking why they’re moving in, and what comes next

It started slowly, so slowly that it took the folks around Fort Assiniboine a long time to notice anything was happening at all.

But properties that had been for sale for years were getting snatched up, sold at prices that were sometimes far over market value. People were showing up at residents’ doors asking to buy their land, tying notes onto farm gates with golden string, addressed: “To the Landowner.” An area realtor told locals she had a list of people wanting to buy properties, then sold her own house and moved south. One by one, family homesteads were flipping: the Levy place, the Bradley’s, the Edeltraud’s, all bought by newcomers to the area.

The buyers were similarly unexpected. Not farmers expanding their land or moving from other rural properties, but people from Spain, Australia, Israel, New York. There were psychologists, designers, a pharmacist – professional people and retirees scooping up property and asking who else might be selling, because, they said, their friends were interested in buying there, too. When locals asked why – why would you move to this isolated area two hours away from Edmonton, with nothing out here, and a town so small it didn’t technically qualify as a town at all – they would say, “peace and quiet.”

The influx would eventually be traced to numbered companies and individuals connected to John de Ruiter, a 63-year-old former orthopedic shoemaker who, for 30 years, has commanded a legion of dedicated followers from around the world in a group some say is a cult. The self-styled spiritual leader has long faced questions about his sexual relationships with women in his community, and in January was charged with four counts of sexual assault. His wife, 64-year-old Leigh Ann de Ruiter, has since been charged with three counts of sexual assault in relation to the same allegations.

Over many months, residents around Fort Assiniboine began to suspect what property documents now prove: John de Ruiter was coming to the area, and his followers were moving with him.

A woman talks on the phone inside one of the businesses leased by the newcomers. Fort Assiniboine itself is a tiny hamlet surrounded by thousands of square kilometres of Woodlands County land.
At a café bought by newcomers, a sign says it will be ‘opening kinda soon.’ The café’s ‘welcome friends’ sign is not new, but it echoes the typical greeting of members of Mr. de Ruiter's group, ‘my friend.’
This note and string were tied to the gate of a local in Woodlands County.

The newcomers

The hamlet of Fort Assiniboine is about an hour and a half northwest of Edmonton, a modest clutch of houses, trailers and commercial buildings dotting a few blocks along the winding Athabasca River. As of the last census, there were 158 residents in the hamlet, and another 4,558 souls spread sparsely over the 7,668 square kilometres of field and forest that make up the rural municipality of Woodlands County.

The first sign of the newcomers came in the spring of 2020, when the county received an application to rezone agricultural property along the edge of a vast expanse of Crown land for a camp. According to documents put before council, the 189-site River’s Edge Wilderness Centre would focus on wilderness skills training, but would “also welcome religious groups, yoga, or spiritual groups seeking outdoor retreat facilities.”

The application was filed by Ted Barnes, a retired engineer who told council the project was “created by a small group of individuals who love nature and enjoy bringing people together in a natural learning environment.”

Although it was not publicly linked to John de Ruiter, one of the two directors of the numbered company behind the application is Don Kostelyk, former operations manager for the Oasis Centre, the lavish facility in Edmonton where Mr. de Ruiter’s community previously met and held meetings. The other director of the numbered company is Mr. Kostelyk’s wife, Gladys.

Woodlands County council ultimately declined the rezoning application, after other landowners expressed concerns about traffic and environmental impacts. But while the camp didn’t proceed, land title documents show numerous other properties in the area continued to be purchased by people closely associated with Mr. de Ruiter.

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A house on one of the properties owned by Nathaniel de Ruiter.

Mr. de Ruiter’s son, Nathaniel de Ruiter, bought 160 acres in the Fort Assiniboine area in 2021 for $218,000 in cash under a numbered company, then obtained two more quarters directly across the highway. One was purchased for $310,000, the other – valued on transfer documents at $420,000 – gifted to his numbered company by a woman named Marilyn Carr. An application to subdivide one of the purchased properties into three lots, with a residence on each parcel, was filed in November 2022 by Don Kostelyk’s son, Jesse.

John de Ruiter’s spokesperson, Zaba Walker, and her husband Johannes, who was facility manager of the Oasis Centre, purchased a quarter nearby for $300,000. Anne McLennan, Oasis’ wedding director, bought a plot for $330,000. Ayaaz Kassam, a realtor and former vegan restaurant owner who has hosted events with Mr. de Ruiter and described him as “my teacher,” picked up a property of his own for $160,000.

In addition to the land owned under their numbered company, Don and Gladys Kostelyk bought another quarter in the area for $180,000, around the time the River’s Edge development was declined.

Others were looking. Ron and Christine Dimler – formerly conference director at the Oasis Centre – left notes on properties describing themselves as people who “really enjoy living in the country,” and were looking to “purchase a larger property, ideally a quarter section bordering crown land.”

Another man, who’d been sleeping in his truck in the area in October, told locals he’d come from England looking for John de Ruiter.

Newcomers bought the restaurant in Fort Assiniboine, opened a store, and took over the shuttered café. Posters for yoga classes fluttered on bulletin boards alongside ads for wood and cattle dogs.

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Signs outside town promote a realtor and a farmers' market.

As more and more properties flipped – often quietly, in private deals – Woodlands County began receiving applications for subdivisions and development permits. And slowly, longtime residents began to take notice.

One former follower of Mr. de Ruiter, who is being identified only as Bob because he fears being associated with the group could compromise his housing and employment, said he began to hear about people moving to Fort Assiniboine in 2020 or 2021.

He said the moves were happening quietly, and that even friends within the community weren’t always open about their plans.

“If ever anybody mentioned it, especially on a livestream, John would say, ‘No, this isn’t directed by me. It’s just happening,’” said the man, who left the group about a year ago, when allegations of sexual assault by Mr. de Ruiter began to surface.

Bob said when someone asked about it directly, Mr. de Ruiter said: “Just move. If you want to be close to me, move wherever you think I am.”

“And of course, everybody knows, even though you’re not supposed to talk about it,” Bob said. “Everybody’s moving to Fort Assiniboine.”

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Woodlands County's residents began to notice the activities of Mr. de Ruiter's followers as they applied for permits to subdivide and develop their new holdings.

Everybody’s moving to Fort Assiniboine

Residents of isolated rural areas may already tend toward being leery of outsiders, but there again, Mr. de Ruiter is far from the average new arrival. To his followers, he’s the literal, living embodiment of truth, a highly evolved being, even god. To his detractors, he’s a cult leader wielding a dangerous amount of power.

Mr. de Ruiter’s following dates to the mid-1990s, when he split with the Lutheran church and began holding gatherings at his home in Edmonton. Since then, his teachings around openness and “core splitting honesty” have blossomed into a multi-million-dollar enterprise, including meetings, retreats, and online resources like “John de Ruiter TV.” He is particularly known for long periods of silent staring.

Mr. de Ruiter has been the subject of media attention and scrutiny for decades, including a 2017 Globe feature about whether his sexual relationships with followers were an abuse of power. The Frequently Asked Questions page of his website nods to numerous controversies and “extreme criticisms,” acknowledging questions around his finances, sexual behaviour, and control over his community. The webpage also addresses the question of whether “John and his meetings constitute a cult,” but concludes they do not.

Mr. de Ruiter’s spokesperson, Zaba Walker, told a reporter last year last year that there are 300 to 400 people who attend events locally, and another 3,000 to 4,000 supporters around the world.

The sexual assault allegations against Mr. de Ruiter have caused a deep split in the group, sparking the defection of dozens of people in Alberta – some of whom have been with Mr. de Ruiter for decades, even their entire lives.

“I think people who are willing to wake up and recognize what they’ve been in and own it, will be better for it,” said Jess Silva, who left the group with her partner last year, and is writing a newsletter about her experience. “Now we get to actually wake up from what was a long, long dream. Now we get to live. It’s really the brink of real life.”

Ms. Silva said she was relieved when the charges were laid, but that her partner went into a state of physical shock from the news, devastated by the realization that he’d left his home, his children, and his career for Mr. de Ruiter, “that he had invested so much and it had come to this.”

Many others remain deeply devoted. At Mr. de Ruiter’s bail hearing in January, defence lawyer Dino Bottos counted 33 people there for Mr. de Ruiter. Those supporters – some weeping, clutching cell phones from which Mr. de Ruiter’s face glowed as their wallpaper – packed into the courtroom, squeezing two deep onto benches or standing at the back, gazing rapt at Mr. de Ruiter as he appeared on video from the remand centre.

Details of that hearing cannot be published because of a standard, court-ordered publication ban.

Raised in Stettler, Mr. de Ruiter has long hosted rural retreats and camping trips, but former followers say he’s been increasingly drawn to the wilderness in recent years. In November 2021, while those around him continued to purchase properties around Fort Assiniboine, Mr. de Ruiter bought the 121-acre Mosquito Lake campground near Hondo, north of Edmonton, for $1,050,000 under a numbered company registered solely to him. That camp, which is about a two-hour drive from Fort Assiniboine, was renovated, renamed Midnight Sky, and has been the location of a number of events with Mr. de Ruiter since.

“A lot of the talk in Smith and Hondo these days seems to be about a ‘cult’ that has been buying up properties at a terrific rate,” said a short unsigned piece in the area’s local newspaper last May.

“This sort of thing can be disruptive for a small community, as new, unexpected and completely different from what’s generally considered ‘normal’ things usually are …” it read. “If people behave like good neighbours and follow the rules regarding development and so on, there shouldn’t be too many problems. It could even make life a bit more interesting in the neighbourhood.”

Strawson's General Store is a local institution that carries everything from garden supplies to fresh produce. Here, locals' conversations have increasingly focused on the newcomers.

A bit more interesting in the neighbourhood

The mood on a sunny winter day in the hamlet of Fort Assiniboine is not as light and peaceful as it appears. At the mailboxes and the curling rink, in the aisles of Strawson’s General Store, longtime locals talk in hushed tones, and look warily at those they don’t recognize. Coming out of the tensions of COVID, the question of the newcomers has once again divided neighbours, pitting residents against each other, fostering paranoia and suspicion as people wonder who may pose a threat to whom.

“I’ve heard some of the concerns. How can you not?” said Fort Assiniboine resident Carole Carr, who is among those standing up for the newcomers.

“I’ve always gone to bat for them and said, ‘In my opinion, they’ve been nothing but good for the hamlet.’ They’re nice. They’re very pleasant, a lot of them are professional people.”

Originally from Wales, Ms. Carr says she has things in common with the new residents, having also moved to the small rural community from more metropolitan places. She said she’s made a number of new friends in the group, and that those coming in have been good for the economy, buying properties, supporting the stores and drawing much-needed traffic.

“The whole area is going to die a death if we don’t allow new people into the area. I don’t see a downside,” she said. “Apart from the fact that I don’t really understand who this man is that they’re following.”

At the County office, Jen Christianson said the newcomers have become a popular topic of discussion for many walking through the door.

“They’re in the community. Nice folks,” she said. “My only question mark is, how are they contributing to the community? Whether it’s community groups, or if they help out with the Legion or help out with the ag society or whatever, how are they going to contribute to community? They’re here, but what are they going to do?”

The tiny local library now stocks four copies of Dark Oasis: A Self-Made Messiah Unveiled by Jasun Horsley, a former follower of Mr. de Ruiter’s who has become one of his most public detractors. Librarian Megan Petryshen says all the copies have been out constantly since the fall, with a waiting list.

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A copy of Dark Oasis sits on a resident's table in Fort Assiniboine.

Questions about the new spiritual leader in their midst – and about those who would choose to follow him – took on a new urgency in Fort Assiniboine in January, when Edmonton police announced Mr. de Ruiter had been charged with four counts of sexual assault.

Police said the charges related to women in Mr. de Ruiter’s following, and that “the accused informed certain female group members that he was directed by a spirit to engage in sexual activity with them, and that engaging in sexual activity with him will provide them an opportunity to achieve a state of higher being or spiritual enlightenment.”

Mr. de Ruiter remains out on bail on a number of conditions, including that he can’t be alone with any woman except his daughter, his wife Leigh Ann, and his previous common-law wife Katrina von Sass, a former Olympic volleyball player who resides with them.

Leigh Ann de Ruiter was also released on bail. Her conditions include that she’s “prohibited from arranging, inviting, counselling or facilitating any sexual activities between John de Ruiter and any other female person.” The charges are expected to go to trial in late 2024 or 2025.

In the absence of concrete information about Mr. de Ruiter’s presence in Fort Assiniboine, gossip has circulated wildly through the community.

When resident Cory Kitchen heard what he describes as “a country hamlet rumour” the newcomers planned to blow up the bridges into town if necessary to protect their people, it disturbed him so much he drove to one of the main properties and went to the door to confront them.

“You’re free to do whatever you want in your world, unless it goes to hurt my family or friends. Well, then now I have a problem,” Mr. Kitchen says. “That’s exactly the message I had relayed to them.”

He said the people he encountered were very nice in response to his intrusion, and that they denied the rumour about the bridges, telling him they were just moving to the area to better their lives. He said he’s been trying to leave it alone and avoid any drama since then, though he remains uneasy.

“What’s the intention?” he said. “That’s the question. What’s the intention here?”

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A letter from a concerned local resident describes how they were approached to sell their property to Mr. de Ruiter's followers. 'Are they to support our area or are they a detriment to us?' the writer asks.

What’s the intention here?

Dr. Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta professor who specializes in alternative religions, has been following the evolution of Mr. de Ruiter’s group for three decades and is keeping a close eye on the move north.

He says the relocation of a close-knit spiritual group isn’t uncommon, but the outcome varies wildly. In some cases, it works. The new residents bring in resources and opportunities, and ultimately integrate well – or well enough – with the community. But in other cases, he says, it’s “disastrous.”

“Tensions grow between the new community members versus longtime residents, and the tensions devolve into acrimony,” he said. “Acrimony and violence.”

One longtime member of Mr. de Ruiter’s community says he’s equally worried about dedicated followers he believes would die for John, and about locals who think “there’s a cult up here.”

“It’s a two-way street. They might be trying to protect John, but other people are going to see the cult as a threat, and that’s scary, too…,” said the man, who The Globe agreed not to identify because of ongoing challenges related to leaving the group.

“There’s a potential there, and it’s potential on all sides. It’s not just about the group doing something extreme. It’s about somebody doing something extreme to the group.”

In the 1980s, the Oregon community of Rajneeshpuram – created around the guru Rajneesh, also known as Osho – famously escalated into extreme and dangerous conflicts with area residents. A number of people from that group later moved to Alberta, and joined Mr. de Ruiter.

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State Avenue in Fort Assiniboine.

The mounting enmity in Fort Assiniboine was apparent during a recent meeting at the hamlet’s Museum and Friendship Club Drop-in Centre, where the issue of the newcomers drew a large and sometimes emotional crowd, and emerged amid discussion of gravel trucks and municipal development.

Toward the end of the evening, a woman who identified herself as one of the new residents acknowledged it was “a very unusual situation.”

“I wanted to say that it wasn’t planned that this group of people were going to come here and take over. It was not like that,” said the unnamed woman, in a recording of the meeting provided to The Globe. “There’s a whole story to it, but I don’t think now’s the time.”

The woman suggested a committee could be formed to liaise with the newcomers, and said there was “room for conversation … as uncomfortable or unusual, or unpleasant, or whatever that may seem.”

“Please don’t let it build in this negative way,” she said.

Mr. de Ruiter’s spokesperson, Zaba Walker, told The Globe the group would not answer questions about people moving to Fort Assiniboine, including whether Mr. de Ruiter is living in the area.

Woodlands County Reeve John Burrows said he understands the apprehension of longtime residents, but stresses there are no allegations anyone else associated with Mr. de Ruiter has done anything illegal, and that Mr. de Ruiter will go through the legal system to face his charges.

“If people have concerns that there’s anything criminal going on, then by all means, contact the RCMP,” Mr. Burrows said.

“But from a municipal standpoint, we aren’t really able to say who gets to move here. And it would be a tough position to put us in if we ever got to that spot.”

Municipal councillors either declined to speak, or did not return requests for comment. But in the December edition of local newspaper The Woodlands Express, Councillor Peter Kuelken concluded his year-end review with a note about the “many new folks that have chosen to make this County of ours their home.”

“We would not be here if our forefathers no matter the country they came from or what their beliefs were had not been welcomed by the people who lived here…,” he wrote.

“Let’s continue being a welcoming community of diverse and good people for in that there is strength.”

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A letter from councillor Peter Kuelken urges people to accept the newcomers.

Still, for some around Fort Assiniboine, questions persist. What will all these people from the city do out in the isolated rural area? What happens if Mr. de Ruiter is convicted? Why did it feel like it happened in a way that was so secretive? And, perhaps most of all, why did they come here?

While some residents have so far refused offers to buy their properties, others told The Globe they’re seriously considering selling land that’s been in their families for generations, fearing that it will soon be worthless, or that they’ll be outnumbered.

“Our exit strategy is already in the works,” Mr. Kitchen said.

Numerous other landowners expressed serious concerns but did not want to be quoted on the record, in some cases equally fearing making enemies of the newcomers and of angering locals they previously considered friends. One man said he was afraid to express his views publicly because he worried about retaliation by those who stand to profit off the new residents.

As he wrote in a text, “There are no guarantees that these people will ever leave and I’m not ready to give up everything I have. It isn’t a whole hell of a lot, but it’s mine.”

With research from Stephanie Chambers

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Trees surround a property of Nathaniel de Ruiter.

Who is John de Ruiter? More on The Decibel

Reporter Jana G. Pruden has been investigating John de Ruiter’s group for years, speaking to ex-members and attending a meeting to learn more about his spiritual teachings. She spoke with The Decibel about the sexual-assault charges laid against him in February. Subscribe for more episodes.

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