KITCHENER, Ont. -
Raymond Daniels has never drunk blood from a skull, sacrificed a virgin or ridden a goat inside his lodge. Or so he says.
As the top-ranking Freemason in Ontario, the retired Kitchener high-school teacher has heard just about every far-fetched accusation you can imagine: that Freemasons, one of the world's largest "secret societies," are devil worshippers, a Jewish front for world domination and evil plotters who arranged the assassination of JFK.
Yes, there are people who genuinely believe those things. Which means Daniels, the first grand master for Ontario's 50,000 Freemasons to hail from Kitchener, spends a lot of his time dispelling the myths and conspiracy theories that have dogged his organization for centuries.
Though Freemasons first built lodges in Galt and Kitchener some 150 years ago, the society still remains an obscure organization for many non-members today. Daniels is trying to change that with a new openness for a group that was once very closed to outsiders.
"Conspiracy theories sell more books than the truth," Daniels said during a recent sit-down interview. "There are people who delight in calling us a cult ... but I've never attended a lodge ceremony where we sacrifice virgins or kill babies. I'm still waiting for that."
The truth about Freemasons may be far less exciting. What if they're just a bunch of guys who are into brotherhood, non-satanic rituals, self-improvement and charity work?
In its heyday in the 1960s, there were some 120,000 Freemasons in Ontario. Then, the Masons went into a long, slow decline where "no one joined anything," Daniels said. Today, there remain about 1,000 members in Waterloo Region.
Daniels thinks things may finally be changing for the better. His organization inducted about 1,350 new members last year, most of them "disillusioned young men" who are "looking for something more" in their lives, he said.
And they just christened a new Masonic lodge in Afghanistan, a sign that Freemasonry is growing in popularity among Canadian troops, he said.
Though Freemasons went "underground" in the early part of the last century, Daniels said, it's hardly a secret society anymore.
"We're in the phone book. I wear a ring. I have a decal on my car. We have quite an extensive web page. We publish a magazine that anyone can see. Now, if that's being secretive, we're not very good at it," he said.
But that hasn't stopped detractors, including religious fundamentalists, from accusing Freemasons of everything from conspiring with aliens to holding wild orgies and occult rituals to secretly running the world - or trying to destroy it.
Part of the conspiracy theories may be blamed on the number of important men in history who have been Freemasons. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Sir John A. Macdonald were all members. So was John Diefenbaker, and about a dozen premiers of Ontario. And so was Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the British war hero this city is named after.
Even in the age of the Internet, Freemasonry still retains enough mystique to invite uninformed speculation. Lodges keep their doors closed to non-members, except for rare open houses, and windows are generally made of concrete, not glass. The organization places great importance on Egyptian symbols, secret passwords and hidden meanings. But even the secret Masonic handshake, once a way for Masons to identify themselves around the world, can be found in a quick Google search.
Daniels, as grand master, carries his ceremonial clothes in a plain black briefcase. Inside, there's a gold collar with entwined serpents and the North Star, attached to the Masonic symbol of a compass and ruler. There's the "all-seeing" eye - yes, the same one you can find on the U.S. dollar bill - and an ornate lambskin apron decorated with lotuses, suns and pomegranate.
Though few Freemasons actually work in stone anymore, the stonemason imagery at the centre of their organization still has meaning - the idea that like stone, the lessons of Freemasonry outlast all else.
"As builders of character, we're trying to build lasting character in our members," Daniels said.
, who was elected to a two-year term in 2009.
He says Freemasonry has given him a good life. He joined his father's Orillia lodge in 1959 and remained active during the 23 years he taught music and history at Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener. In 1993, he became a worshipful master, or a Masonic teacher, and worked his way up the organization's ranks.
"The men I have been associated with have changed my entire outlook and my entire being for the better," he said. "I'm so grateful for the things they've given me."
It's not all about self-improvement, though. Ontario's Freemasons do charity work, too. In 2005, they raised $2 million for hearing research at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Every year, lodges across the province give away thousands in bursaries and scholarships, and money to a wide range of local charities, from summer camps to the Children's Wish Foundation.
You don't need a connection to join, and any man over 21 can apply for membership. Because Freemasons put such importance on being law-abiding citizens, applicants will need to go through a background check and a criminal record check.
Applicants who pass that process will be visited by three Freemasons, who will try to gauge their character through a series of interviews. They may speak to family, too. Lodge members then take a vote on the applicant's admission, and undergo an initiation rite that is imbued with symbolism.
"It's almost like getting a job at Wal-Mart," Daniels said.
Not everyone makes the cut. And about once or twice a year, a Freemason in Ontario is kicked out of the organization for bad behaviour, a delicate procedure that Daniels oversees.
Local Masons include Christians, Jews and Muslims, and the whole spectrum of trades and professions, he said. The only religious questions applicants are asked is: "Do you believe in a greater power than yourself?"
The draw, Daniels said, is the character-building lessons and mentorship offered by an organization that has been around for more than 300 years. Masons call each other brother - and live by a code of fraternity and equality that overrides everything else, Daniels said. That appeals to many men, he said.
"Where else does a young man look today for role models, stability and trustworthiness?" he said. "The old trustworthiness of another man, that's something we cherish."
With an emphasis on gentlemanly behaviour and being a good citizen, Freemasons offer members strict moral principles in a morally deprived society, Daniels said. And if that makes Freemasons old-fashioned, so be it, he said.
"You're darn right we're out of step with modern society," he said.