Heroic activist or misguided cult leader?

Ludwig has ruffled many feathers, including church members who threatened him with a pitchfork and a shotgun

The Edmonton Journal/January 9, 2010

Wiebo Ludwig's life has always been stormy, marked by conflict with his family, his church, his neighbours, the oil industry, the police.

"He's a man who thrives on conflict," says journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, who wrote Saboteurs, Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil. "He has to have some conflict in his life. He feels alive during combat."

To his family, the defrocked Christian Reformed minister is the hero and spiritual leader of the Trickle Creek farm. But to some of his neighbours in the northwest Alberta towns of Hythe and Beaverlodge, Ludwig is known as an eco-terrorist, a man who abandoned peaceful means in his battle against oilpatch polluters to blow up one well and vandalize another in the late 1990s.

Some see him as rude, gutsy, harsh and intolerant of disobedience.

"Wiebo's not afraid to deal with the brokenness in life," his wife, Mamie, said in a 1999 interview. "A lot of people just like to say, 'Let's love each other and let's have birthday parties and let's have Christmas together and let's forget about our troubles and move on.' But Wiebo isn't that way. He gets into the nitty gritty of life, and a lot of people can't handle that. He wants us to be real."

That nitty gritty has led Ludwig to say and do harsh things. In the mid-1990s, for instance, he scolded his 90-year-old mother, Mem, for failing to provide him and his siblings with a proper Christian education as children, and for her not submitting to the authority of her husband, Harry. At the end of the meeting, when his mother wasn't properly contrite, Ludwig refused the entreaty of a church elder to hug her. "You know, I would sooner hug a prostitute," he said. "I think you need to hear that. We're not in agreement. I have some serious things, and you want me to hug you. That makes me feel sick and ucky."

Nonetheless, Mem forgave her son. "Wiebo is outspoken, that is his personality, but he is honest and has a good heart," she later said.

Others haven't been so forgiving. In April 2000, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman chastised Ludwig for being a rigid-thinking zealot, then sentenced the oilpatch bomber to 28 months in prison for blowing up a Suncor well in 1998 and vandalizing another well, covering it in cement.

Sanderman criticized Ludwig's ongoing attempts to justify his war with the oilpatch.

"Maybe it's time to stop thinking that way," Sanderman told Ludwig in court. "That's the behaviour of a zealot. That's someone who has closed his mind to any other explanations. The world isn't black and white. The world is full of many shadings of grey."

Years ago, professors at his seminary had voted against Ludwig being ordained and labelled his community at Trickle Creek as a cult.

"I think Wiebo Ludwig is a very misguided Christian, who flouted all authority, who seems to think he's the only one who can speak on behalf of God," said Rev. Henry De Moor, who tried to stop Ludwig from being accepted as a Christian Reformed minister in 1975. "He's a cult leader who has done much damage in people's lives, probably in good faith, thinking he was doing the right thing."

For his part, Ludwig has always been proud of his zealotry and uncompromising ways.

"God judges those who do not believe in him severely," he has said. "Those who play a pretending game, he judges even more severely."

A Dutch immigrant, Ludwig grew up in Sylvan Lake and Red Deer, the youngest of eight children, teased by others about his foreign dress and manners. Early on, he rejected what he saw as his family and his Dutch community's overdeveloped drive to work hard and succeed in material fashion. "They were throwing their kids to the dogs, not attending to their needs, spending their time making money and trying to have equal status among Canadians, a real drive to be recognized on that superficial level."

When he was 14, Ludwig wrote an article for the church bulletin board, assailing some elders for falling asleep in the pews.

He went to Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, where in 1968 he married Mamie, the daughter of college founder Rev. B.J. Haan.

Over the next 20 years, she was usually pregnant or tending an infant, giving birth to 11.

Harmony was born in 1969; Ben, in 1970; Fritz, in 1972; Wiebo Jr. (Bo), in 1974; Joshua, in 1976; Mamie Jr., in 1978; Salome, in 1980; Charity, in 1983; Caleb, in 1985; Levi, in 1987 and Ishshah, in 1989.

At Dordt, Ludwig was unpredictable, said his college roommate, Harry Salomons, who became a Christian Reformed minister. He would study all night, then fall asleep and miss the test. Or he'd break curfew by riding around all night with a police officer. "He was a man unto himself," Salomons said.

In 1970, he went to the Christian Reformed's serene Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, his manner troubled many of his professors.

"When Wiebo Ludwig was in a leadership role, he would assert his own will and would allow for no differences of opinion and questions of his authority," said Rev. Mel Hugen, who taught Ludwig at the seminary from 1970-75. "It was a pattern we recognized would get him in great trouble in the ministry."

At the end of Ludwig's five years of study, most of his professors refused to endorse his ordination, an uncommon measure that happens to about one in 90 students. On appeal, trustees accepted him into the ministry.

From 1976-1985, Ludwig engaged in bitter conflicts with two congregations, first in Thunder Bay, then Goderich, a small town of 7,500 on Lake Huron. In Thunder Bay, he refused to marry a Dutch protestant and Italian Catholic couple until they did more religious study. After two years, he was suspended.

In Goderich, many church members could not accept his insistence on obedience to both the husband in marriage and to the male elders in the Christian Reformed Church. "He appeals to men who like to lord it over women," said a leading woman in the congregation, Stein Schoemaker. "He's very egotistical. It's him or nothing. He pretends to know who his master is, but I'm questioning it."

Ludwig tried to discipline those who disagreed with him and formally censured some respected elders in the congregation. Things got so heated, one member of the congregation threatened Ludwig with a pitchfork, another with a shotgun.

In 1982, Ludwig had a falling out with organized religion, then started to have conflicts with his wife and remaining followers, disciplining them by having their heads shaved and by banishing them at times from their home and families. At one point, Ludwig and two zealous supporters, Richard Boonstra and Bill Schilthuis, belt-spanked Bill's wife Stephanie, the same woman with whom Ludwig had had a romantic affair.

Stephanie has said she never felt Ludwig properly paid for his adultery. "That made me angry, that I committed adultery with a certain party, Wiebo Ludwig, but I was the one that was excommunicated and he got to be with his family, and I was always the one that was being kicked out."

In 1985, Ludwig moved to a remote farm in northwestern Alberta. Trickle Creek is isolated, two quarter sections at the end of a dead-end gravel road.

Ludwig no longer battled his congregation over spiritual matters, but turned his attention to Mamie, his closest supporters, Richard and Lois Boonstra, and at last to Alberta's oil and gas industry.

The Ludwigs gained a reputation for doing fast, excellent work as drywallers, local grocery store owner Doug Burdess said in a 1999 interview. But the head-shaving, combined with the Ludwig's obvious religious fervour and desire for seclusion, soon got the rumour mill going. Wild stories spread about Wiebo having eight wives, about the Ludwigs all being inbred.

At Trickle Creek, the Ludwigs tried to get off the grid, growing their own food and setting up a windmill to generate power.

Before February 1997, not one story had appeared in Alberta's major newspapers about the conflict between environmentalists and the oil industry in the Grande Prairie region. Since then, front-page coverage has been common. But the conflict with industry had been going on quietly since the early 1990s, as the number of gas wells within a two-kilometre radius around Trickle Creek grew from one to ten, part of the industry's massive expansion in the area.

The Ludwigs came to believe pollution from the oil and gas industry was harming their health. The main culprits, they said, were gas leaks from established wells and the high-pressure venting and flaring of toxic waste that goes on in the weeks when an underground gas deposit is first measured.

Ludwig and his family felt they had been "fumigated" by leaks and venting numerous times. In that time, several Trickle Creek women had miscarriages and one baby was stillborn and deformed. Similar problems occurred with their farm animals.

To get out the family's message, Wiebo's son Josh filmed a home video, Home Sour Home. "A truly wholesome way of life is being choked out," Wiebo Ludwig said in the video. "There's nothing wrong with self-defence, protecting your children, protecting your family, protecting your environment when nothing else will. We don't care how many laws there are against it. Morally it is a thing before God to do."

The dispute had a familiar feel to Ludwig. It was a new enemy, but an old fight, the oil companies taking the place of his parents and other Dutch immigrants, then of the wealthy in Goderich, groups he believed put wealth above spiritual health.

In the mid-1990s, the oil and gas industry in the area started to experience incidents of vandalism, which came to number more than 150.

One night in June 1999, everything changed for the Ludwigs. Karman Willis, 16, was out riding around with friends, trespassing on Ludwig's property, when a shot was fired and she was killed. The homicide has hung over Trickle Creek and the surrounding towns ever since.

In a call to the police the night of the shooting, Ludwig admitted that shots had been fired at a truck. Two trucks drove over his lawn, he told a 911 operator.

The Ludwigs have always contended no one at Trickle Creek knows the identity of the shooter. They have repeatedly placed much of the blame for the shooting on the teens, both indirectly -- by claiming the teens evoked terror that night by shouting and doing doughnuts in their trucks -- and directly, by speculating the teens may have fired the shots themselves. The teens have said that final allegation is preposterous.

When Ludwig was in jail in 2000, things were quiet for a time.

In November 2001, having served two-thirds of his sentence, the 60-year-old was released.

Wiebo's jailing did not change minds at Trickle Creek, his son, Joshua, and Richard Boonstra said in a statement: "Be assured that this ordeal has not succeeded in destroying us or silencing us as a fledgling, self-sufficient Christian community, but has rather strengthened our unity and resolve."

In 2004, when a TV-movie on Ludwig came out, local mayor Rhonda Tofteland said, "I don't know what effect the movie will have here. People are getting tired of hearing about Wiebo. He likes to get under people's skin."

In July 2007, Ludwig was charged with aggravated assault in connection with a fight near a well site on his property.

That charge was later stayed.

In October 2008, he spoke out about the new series of bombings in the Dawson Creek area, saying he understood the bomber and his frustration with the oilpatch.

"I've been there; I've wanted to do terrible things to the industry because of what was happening to us here -- not because I wanted to pay them back, but to stop them somehow because they wouldn't listen," Ludwig told CBC.

"We talked for six years to authorities, wrote letters ad nauseam, and everybody just passed the buck. And when you get to that point, you say, well, there's only one thing left. You've got to shake them up."

In September 2009, after six bombings over a 10-month period in the area of Tomslake, Ludwig wrote an open letter urging the bomber to end the violence.

While many people share the bomber's concerns about nearby sour gas wells, the letter read, most do so in silence for fear of criticism if they speak out.

"I want to encourage you not to let anger about such stupidity get the best of you and to realize that these conflicts cannot ultimately be settled by use of force, but by way of informed and patient persuasion. Please give that the time it needs now.

"You need to know that you have already set a lot of good things in motion. You've truly woken a lot of people up and stimulated some very valuable discussion."

In recent years, Ludwig has continued to try to deal with oil companies drilling on and around his property, Nikiforuk said.

"He was a little bit uneasy about the scale of development around his place."

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