The Saga of Brother XII
Paradise is found and then lost on Vancouver Island
With its natural beauty and remote location, British Columbia has represented something deeply intoxicating for many: a chance at spiritual escape in a Garden of Eden of sorts. Over the years, scores of individuals have attempted to construct their own paradise in B.C., from early missionaries like William Duncan to those who came to lose themselves in the Lotus Land of Vancouver. One of the most bizarre attempts at utopia dates back a century to Edward Arthur Wilson, or Brother XII (Brother Twelve). The adopted moniker refers to the Theosophical belief of a brotherhood comprised of the so-called “Masters of the Ancient Wisdom." This exclusive club included the likes of Jesus, Confucius, and Gautama Buddha, among others.
In 1927, Brother XII arrived on Vancouver Island. By then, he was already a small spiritual leader in a nascent occult movement. Only decades old, Theosophy was a grab bag of assorted religious and philosophical beliefs, from Hinduism to Christianity to Neoplatonism, a strand of Plato-inspired philosophy. For thousands of adherents, Brother XII’s message of universal brotherhood and societal collapse was compelling, and he soon gained a following in B.C. With their support, he established the Aquarian Foundation — a nod to the Theosophical notion that humanity was entering an era known as the Age of Aquarius. He also created a compound where his followers could spiritually prepare for the end of the current world order. The Ark of Refuge, as Brother XII called it, was built on the sandy shores of De Courcy Island near Nanaimo.
It cost money to purchase and develop the site, but this was of little concern to Brother XII. His followers were wealthy and more than happy to foot the bill. A lawyer from Kansas City wired $10,000; a millionaire poultryman in Florida named Roger Painter donated nine times that amount. Mary Connolly, an ageing American socialite, ended up contributing an estimated $520,000 over the years, a sum worth nearly $8 million today. While only a few dozen followers made the trip to British Columbia, donations towards the Ark streamed in from more than 8,000 supporters across North America.
Their faith in Brother XII would be tested, though, as the Aquarian Foundation unravelled in the ensuing years. Revelations of multiple extra-marital affairs with numerous followers tarnished his image. Eventually, he would commit to one mistress — a married woman named Mabel Skottowe, whom he would call Madame Zee. He yielded her equal status in the compound, and she embraced her new power while inflicting abuse on other followers. Brother XII’s popularity eroded as the duo became increasingly insular and couched in their paranoia. Charges of embezzlement were levied at the prodigal prophet, who for years had spent the fortune he’d accrued from followers on questionable pursuits, including supporting the failed American presidential campaign of a Ku Klux Klan member and stockpiling a private arsenal of firearms. Finally in 1932, as a wave of bitter disillusionment swept through the Ark of Refuge, Brother XII and Madame Zee spirited away in a ship filled with half a million dollars in gold coins packed in jam jars, wreaking havoc to the compound as they fled.
While the members of the Aquarian Foundation attempted to locate their erstwhile leader, what happened to the pair remains a mystery. Now, only his notorious legacy remains — as well as rumours of buried treasure on De Courcy Island, left behind by a cult leader on the lam.
1. Berry, David. Brother XII (Edward Arthur Wilson). The Canadian Encyclopedia, 18 Feb. 2020, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/brother-xii-edward-arthur-wilson.
2. Brother XII: Occult Leader of a 1920s Bizarre BC Colony. British Columbia Magazine, 11 May 2015, www.bcmag.ca/brother-xii-occult-leader-of-a-1920s-bizarre-bc-colony/.
3. O'Hagan, Howard. The Weird and Savage Cult of Brother 12. Maclean's, 23 Apr. 1960, archive.macleans.ca/article/1960/4/23/the-weird-and-savage-cult-of-brother-12.
4. Oliphant, John. WILSON, EDWARD ARTHUR (Brother XII; The Brother, XII; Brother Twelve; Amiel De Valdes) . Dictionary of Canadian Biography, www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wilson_edward_arthur_16E.html.
5. Scott, Andrew. The Promise of Paradise: Utopian Communities in British Columbia. Harbour Publishing, 2017.