Mistake to anoint Wiebo eco-martyr

The Edmonton Journal/January 9, 2010

Those eyes. That hair. That beard.

That charismatic blend of righteous religious fury mixed with very real magnetism, humour, and charm.

No wonder Wiebo Ludwig haunts our collective imagination.

One part Old Testament moral scourge, one part cult leader, one part convicted eco-terrorist -- he's a character almost too large for real life, a complex, troubling figure who transcends easy ideological labels.

For decades, Ludwig has challenged the power of governments and corporate elites with his fiery attacks, both literal and rhetorical, on the energy industry, giving loud, impassioned voice to real and often legitimate environmental concerns in a province where few have the courage or the capacity to speak out and be heard.

At the same time, he has a reputation as a fiercely dictatorial demagogue, a silver-tongued master manipulator who runs his Christian back-to-the-land commune with the iron fist of a Biblical patriarch.

And he's a man, who for all his pose of holy righteousness, has never atoned or accepted moral responsibility for the events around the death of Karman Willis, the 16-year-old girl who was shot and killed by some unknown person, one night in 1999, when a group of drunken local teenagers drove onto Ludwig's Trickle Creek farm compound, near Hythe, frightening Ludwig's family and provoking a deadly response.

There are plenty of people out there who see Wiebo Ludwig as a five-star environmental hero, an eco-Robin Hood protecting his family, his land, and our province.

There are plenty of others who see him as a common criminal, with blood on his hands.

The truth is far murkier. It's Ludwig's zealotry, his unshakable moral certainty, that make him both compelling and frightening, that challenge our own comfortable certainties ties and assumptions.

On Friday, RCMP again arrested Alberta's best-known firebrand, this time in connection with a spate of bombings of EnCana pipeline installations in northeastern British Columbia, just across the border from the Trickle Creek commune. Police are now executing a five-day warrant, searching the commune for evidence.

But according to Ludwig's longtime lawyer, Paul Moreau, police intend to charge Ludwig not with the bombings themselves but only with extorting EnCana.

It's a wildly ironic turn of events, given that Ludwig had been publicly helping the RCMP with their investigation, had been giving media interviews about the case, had written an open letter to the bomber, imploring him or her to stop.

The strange twist of circumstances, and the lack of a substantive charge, certainly raise some questions. Could Ludwig be so desperate for media attention, so jealous that someone else had stolen his spotlight, that he tried to take credit for something he hadn't done?

Might he be covering for somebody, protecting someone he cares about, who may have followed his example too closely?

Or could it be that the RCMP, eager to make some progress on this case, or at least to be seen as making progress, especially with the Vancouver Olympics looming, used the relatively weak extortion charge to leverage the search warrant they needed to scour the property for more compelling physical evidence?

The RCMP's past investigations of Ludwig were hardly models of ideal police procedure. Back in 1998, let's recall, when gas-well sites near Hythe were being sabotaged, the RCMP were so desperate to get something on Ludwig and his friend Richard Boonstra they actually staged their own little mock terrorist attack, blowing up a shed at one of the company's gas wells, so that their informant, Robert Wraight, could take credit for the blast, and thereby win Ludwig's trust.

Even then, the case against them was so thin that Ludwig was sentenced tenced to 28 months and served 19. Boonstra, who still lives on the Trickle Creek commune, was sentenced to just 21 days.

If RCMP want to convict someone of something this time, they'll need to do a better job of lining up their ducks. No matter what Ludwig's past actions, it's vitally important that any police investigation or prosecution be carried out with the utmost professionalism and ethical probity, and not just for the sake of Ludwig, or the abstract sake of justice.

The last thing we need is to turn Wiebo Ludwig into a full-fledged eco-martyr, to give him a platform for his enormous ego. The questions that Wiebo Ludwig has raised over the decades about the environmental, medical and social costs of the oil and gas industry are critically important ones, questions that speak to the very soul of our community. They are the right questions to ask. Whether we wish to anoint Wiebo Ludwig, our latter-day Jeremiah, as the prophet to voice them, is an entirely different question.

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