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The Death of the Reverend

Andrew Nikiforuk wrote the book on Wiebo Ludwig. Now he writes his obituary.

Andrew Nikiforuk 11 Apr

Andrew Nikiforuk, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is the author of Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil. It won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002.

Wiebo Ludwig, the man that the mainstream media labelled an "eco-terrorist" and "convicted bomber" died the way he lived: in an uncompromising manner and surrounded by his large and resourceful family.

Struck by esophageal cancer several months ago, the fundamentalist Christian and Dutch immigrant declined modern chemotherapy. He then made his own coffin with the deliberation of a man who feared nobody except God.

Like some Old Testament prophet Ludwig lived his life in the eyes of several storms. He enjoyed explosive rhetoric, challenged atheists, mocked authorities, disparaged modern life, relished political theatre and rarely lost his footing in most conflicts. He raged against the machine long before it became fashionable.

After splitting a Dutch Reformed Church congregation in Goderich, Ontario with an adulterous affair and his extreme views on the role of women in the 1980s, Ludwig fled with his children and friends to the wilds of northern Alberta near Grand Prairie.

Here his large and extended family regrouped from "the troubles" and lived apart from the local community. They earned cash by drywalling local homes and slowly learned how to become as self-sufficient and generous as a 19th century Dutch family. In a fit of rage Ludwig once shaved the head of his wife, Mamie, and sent her off packing to her family in Iowa for some indiscretion. She forgave him.

Ludwig's industrious community later became the centre of two multi-million dollar RCMP investigations on oil patch sabotage. Over the last 16 years the police have searched and occupied the family farm on five separate occasions.

A bloody and messy conflict

Contrary to expectations Ludwig did not pick this particular battle. For years he civilly tried to get authorities in Alberta to recognize the dangers and risks that the sour gas industry routinely imposes on rural people.

Sour gas, a potent neurotoxin, has left a legacy of death and destruction as disquieting as Ludwig's inflammatory oratory throughout western Canada.

After several oil and gas companies trespassed on his land and two sour gas leaks poisoned members of his family and livestock in 1996, Ludwig formally declared war against the industry. The caustic preacher wasn't kidding.

It was a bloody and messy conflict that involved an unprecedented volume of industrial sabotage ($12 million worth of monkey wrenching at hundreds of indefensible well sites), death threats, shootings and several bombings.

In order to establish the credentials of a police informant in Ludwig's community, the RCMP and EnCana Corporation, under the leadership of Gwyn Morgan, added to the general state of fear in the region by setting off their own planned explosion at a well site.

They also parachuted in a Toronto-based terrorist expert into Beaverlodge, Alberta. He fanned the flames by characterizing Ludwig as cult leader and a fanatic. The federal government quietly considered sending in the army supported by tanks and armoured carriers.

Meanwhile Ludwig played with the RCMP, a dysfunctional organization, the way his father, a member of the Dutch resistance, once danced around the Gestapo during the Second World War.

Ludwig's war came with casualties too. The extreme actions of Ludwig, the RCMP and EnCana Corporation all played a role in the tragic death of 16-year-old Karman Willis. She was one of several joy-riding teenagers who drove onto Ludwig's property in June 1999 in two separate trucks at four o'clock in the morning.

As the sons and daughters of oil patch workers, they came to be scared at the haunted house in the woods. They did not reckon that others might be scared too. When the trucks roared back for a second fright, shots rang out. One bullet found Willis and killed her. The government of Alberta failed to conduct a public inquiry.

Jailhouse lessons on Hell

After being charged with a number of offences related to the four-year-long war in the bush, Ludwig spent 18 months in prison where the inmates all agreed that he looked much taller on television. He held religious discussions with fellow convicts and even studied an old Dutch treatise on Hell.

In recent years Ludwig held his Shakespearean rage in check and even mellowed. He concentrated on building a low-energy Christian community largely run by his highly competent sons and daughters.

In 2008 his family again became the focus of another multi-million dollar police investigation when a group of anonymous bombers targeted EnCana's aggressive shale gas plays in British Columbia just a half hour away from Ludwig's home.

It was North America's first war against hydraulic fracturing and it started with a warning letter addressed to EnCana that read, "You simply can't win this fight because you are on the wrong side of the argument."

Attacks on pipelines, a well head and a facility shack prompted a massive investigation led by Canada's anti-terrorist Integrated Security Enforcement Team (INSET).

Despite 250 investigators combing several provinces (many landowners near Dawson Creek and Tom's Lake were treated like Taliban suspects) and EnCana's offer of a $500,000 reward, no bomber was ever found.

In 2009 Ludwig wrote a public letter to the bombers hinting that he knew them intimately: "I want to encourage you not to let anger about such stupidity get the best of you and to realize that these conflicts can ultimately be settled by the use of force but by way of informed and patient persuasion."

During the second investigation the RCMP suggested at one point that they found Ludwig's DNA on a letter threatening EnCana, but no real evidence ever surfaced.

After a team of 200 well-armed officers swarmed his home for a fifth search in 2010, Ludwig invited some senior constables back in for dinner. They accepted.

Christianity and violence

Before he died Ludwig and his family read and discussed a book by Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher. The book was titled Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective. Wrote Ellul: "The better we understand that violence is necessary, indispensable, inevitable, the better shall we be able to reject and oppose it."

Ludwig, who died at the age of 70, will be remembered as a complicated and often angry man who raised unsettling questions about individual rights, corporate power, police methods and government accountability in a petro state.

David York, a Toronto filmmaker who made a documentary on the Ludwig's battles for the National Film Board described the preacher as "a flawed and very powerful, articulate, conflicted campaigner." Most industry folk called Ludwig a terrorist.

Ludwig often reminded Albertans in the rudest and most uncomfortable way possible that oil and gas development is not a win-win situation. It remains a poorly regulated affair that routinely sacrifices the livelihoods, livestock and water of rural citizens for corporate greed, government revenue and careless urban consumption.

Joshua Ludwig released a letter saying the family would not comment on the man's passing. However the letter observed and "appreciated a more balanced coverage by the media of a difficult struggle against the insidious effects of mankind's assault on our environment, a struggle which is shared by men and women everywhere."  [Tyee]

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