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Wiebo Ludwig, fierce and ailing at 69, brings his inescapable star power to Edmonton

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Wiebo Ludwig

Something about Wiebo Ludwig that doesn't quite come through in a TV interview or even a feature-length documentary is the crackling charisma of the man, the intensity of those startling pale blue eyes.

Seeing him on videotape holding court in his living room tells part of the story, but leaves a viewer not quite certain what sparked the rapt adoration his children and followers direct at a man journalists call an "environmental activist" for lack of anything that makes more sense in their limited frame of reference.

Old Testament prophet would be more like it, although that's not quite right either. Experiencing his laser-like gaze, I am reminded for all the world of 19th-century American freedom fighter John Brown, another man with few supporters and a mission for unobtainable justice that led to something bigger and quite unexpected at the time. There is more than a passing resemblance, and in more ways than one.

Ludwig, 69, was on hand with several members and generations of his extended family Saturday night for an Edmonton showing of Wiebo's War, a National Film Board documentary written and directed by David York. Because the film does not toady to the oil and gas industry -- au contraire, my friends -- one can almost feel the flying spittle from neo-Con politicians and industry flacks when they realize it was made with the assistance of our tax dollars.

For the rest of us, though, surely it's mildly reassuring that when it comes to alms for documentary makers, neo-Con Ottawa's left hand knows not what its right hand doeth!

The documentary aims to provide some insight into the troubling story of the Ludwig community's conflicts with the law, with Alberta's essentially lawless energy industry and with its neighbours in northwest Alberta who depend on that industry for their livelihood.

This is a story that involves pipeline bombings, cemented-over gas wells and the mysterious death of a teenage girl in 1999, shot by someone still unidentified when a group of teens roared in trucks through the Ludwig community's Trickle Creek Farm at night. This tragedy has left deep bitterness between many of the oil-rich region's residents and Ludwig's mostly blood-related community of Reformed Christians. It is a tale by turns utopian and dystopian.

The broad strokes of this conflict are well known. The film's invaluable contribution is that it provides context, which makes Ludwig a far more sympathetic if still unsettling character, and chronicles the extremely troubling behaviour of the RCMP in what has to be a multi-million-dollar investigation to pin environmental monkey-wrenching in the region on the Ludwig clan. It would appear that violent false-flag operations have not been dropped from the RCMP's repertoire, notwithstanding the force's bad experience during the FLQ crisis of the 1970s.

York's documentary liberally uses home movies taken by members of the Ludwig clan, film fragments that are often empathetic, sometimes plain weird, and in one instance -- the funeral of a stillborn child -- deeply disturbing.

As is also well known, Ludwig was found guilty and sentenced to 28 months in prison in 2001 for vandalism against gas facilities in northwestern Alberta. He served two-thirds of his sentence. This has made him a hero to many in the environmental movement, and to plenty of beleaguered farmers and ranchers too. His charisma and personal discipline impressed even his jailers. And, as events like Saturday's showing of Wiebo's War illustrate, while thin and ailing (he is reported to be suffering from esophageal cancer), he remains a figure with real star power.

But as is made clear to some extent by York's documentary, and clearer still by the question-and-answer session that followed its presentation Saturday, while concern for the environment that began with his family's localized battle with the gas industry is part of Ludwig's mission, he has something much bigger in mind.

He stayed to fight in the Peace Country despite being offered $800,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement and leave the area, Ludwig told a questioner, because "if some of us don't stand up and give an example, well, none of you will be interested in doing anything, that's for sure." And "we have achieved some things," he added, noting that "they have blacked out our region from further development."

Thus endeth the environmental lesson, however. The rest of his program is overtly religious, although it was well received by the audience, many of whom may not have recognized Ludwig's Biblical references.

Ludwig, who described himself as "divinely stubborn," noted that, at his age, "I'm not as angry, but I'm more determined." I don't think he meant this to be reassuring to the petroleum industry, however, or the governments that unquestioningly support it.

"The battle is won before it is fought," he told a questioner, an apocalyptic reference in the strictest sense of the phrase. "It's a question of which side you are going to pick." He then quoted Matthew 10:28, to loud applause from his mostly secular audience: "And fear not them who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."

Governments that do the wrong thing, Ludwig observed, are like salt that has lost its savour. Which, as Christian scripture says Jesus himself preached, though not about the government, "is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men."

Where this goes was illustrated by the responses to a questioner, who wanted to know what the government should do, by the director, York, and by Richard Boonstra, 67, who might be described as Ludwig's first disciple, right-hand man and the father of the Ludwig sons' wives.

"First thing the government could do is act," said York, who describes himself as an atheist and is shown in the documentary debating his beliefs with the Trickle Creek community. "Behave like a government! We elect governments to regulate powerful players in the economy…"

Boonstra saw this in a different way entirely: "The terrible need is for the government to change their spirit first."

So what's next? Ludwig says he is not yet certain, no doubt in part because of his illness. Young people keep showing up at Trickle Creek, he told me, looking for something, be it environmental or spiritual guidance. He will decide in the fullness of time where the community needs to go with that.

Like the folks who packed the room at the Garneau Theatre, though, if these young people come expecting an environmental activist, they will find a preacher, and one who in the words of a familiar old song can now see clearly a day when God hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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