HYTHE, Alta. – Eco-warrior to some, terrorist to others, Wiebo Ludwig was for decades a polarizing figure in the debate over northern Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
Ludwig died Monday at the age of 70 after a battle with esophageal cancer.
Ludwig’s son Josh confirmed his father’s death in a news release, saying he died at home surrounded by loves ones.
“We will miss him as one who steadfastly and selflessly upheld the hope of the Gospel of Christ, as a loving husband, father and grandfather,” said the release.
“He was not a man of small prayers and often spoke of a conviction that all people will participate in that hope.”
Long before celebrities such as Robert Redford or James Cameron took up their genteel fight against oilsands development, Ludwig waged war against the energy industry from his family compound at Trickle Creek, hidden away in the bush near Hythe, Alta.
Looking like an Old Testament prophet with his full grey beard, swept-back flowing hair and bushy brows, the barrel-chested patriarch said he was first spurred to action by growing sour gas development around his sprawling Christian commune. He claimed the wells were poisoning his family and farm. He blamed them for his daughter’s miscarriage and the deaths of livestock.
On paper, at least, Ludwig appeared a man of peace. He met his wife, Mamie Lou, at an Iowa Christian college in the late 1960s, earned a theology doctorate from an American seminary, then moved to Thunder Bay, Ont., where he was a pastor at a Christian Reformed Church.
He moved to Goderich, Ont., where he took over the Trinity congregation, but he clashed with his flock when he demanded women be barefoot, pregnant and subservient to husbands.
“Half the congregation felt he was out of line and was becoming way too aggressive,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, a journalist and author of the 2002 book “Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil.”
“His personality split the congregation.”
In the 1980s, the Ludwig clan and that of his friend Richard Boonstra headed to northwestern Alberta near the British Columbia boundary.
Life was good at Trickle Creek with family members – 11 children and 23 grandchildren – living on 185 hectares of land. The children were home-schooled and power was generated by windmill. The family grew their own vegetables and raised goats, sheep, cows and chickens.
At first there were just a few sour gas wells, but by 1991 they were mushrooming around his property.
Then, according to Ludwig, farm animals began to die and family members started getting sick. He’d had enough.
Between 1996 and 1998, there were at least 160 incidents at oil and gas facilities in northwestern Alberta. They ranged from nails strewn along lease roads to shootings and bombings.
In April 2000 Ludwig was convicted of bombing a Suncor well site near his home. He was also found guilty of encasing a Norcen Energy well in concrete and counselling an RCMP informant to possess explosives. He served 19 months in jail.
Many suspected that Ludwig was behind a spate of pipeline bombings in British Columbia that started in 2008. In September 2009 Ludwig wrote an open letter to the bomber supporting the cause but encouraging the perpetrator to abandon the bombings. The RCMP eventually raided his property, but no charges were laid.
There was also the death of 16-year-old Karman Willis, a girl who was shot while she and friends were joyriding on Ludwig’s property in pickup trucks early one morning in June 1999.
Ludwig’s children were sleeping in a tent outside when the trucks entered the yard. It was Ludwig who called 911 after shots rang out. Police weren’t able to determine conclusively who pulled the trigger and no charges were laid.
The shooting was a turning point for Ludwig, who enraged many in the community with his self-righteous dismissal of the girl’s death. He told reporters he was “sad” for Karman’s parents, but suggested they needed to reflect on why their daughter had been out so late at night with “wild young teenagers.”
“If anyone pulled the trigger, it was the oil industry that started this controversy and the government which refused to delve into it before it got out of hand,” he told McLean’s magazine.
Between the girl’s death and the fact many of his neighbours made their livings in the oil industry, Ludwig became a pariah in the community. When he returned to Trickle Creek after his sentence, resident Brian Petersen likened the climate to 9-11.
On Monday, Petersen said his heart and sympathy goes to Ludwig’s family, stressing that nobody would be happy at the news.
However, there was little doubt that scars are still there.
“I would say the only thing that is different, perhaps, is that his family now can take this time to see what Karman Willis’s family went through and perhaps come forward with information they have,” said Petersen. “Someone out there knows who killed her.”
Of course, Ludwig had his supporters. Just a year ago, he was joined by 60 people in a protest near a sour gas well site two kilometres from his home.
And he became a cultural figure. In 2002, his crusade was chronicled in an Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival play titled “An Eye for an Eye.” In 2004, there was a made-for-TV movie and last year saw the premiere of a documentary called “Wiebo’s War” by Toronto filmmaker David York.
Throughout his life, Ludwig remained unwavering in his defiant opposition to the oil industry and steadfast in his determination to stay on his land.
“We’re going to try to outlast them here,” he said not long after his release from prison. “Jail hasn’t slowed me down in terms of addressing these problems. It’s only deepened my resolve that this needs to be dealt with.”
Nikiforuk once said Ludwig came by that conviction honestly.
“You have to understand (Ludwig’s) father was an active member of the Resistance in northern Holland. His father was arrested nearly five times by the Gestapo and nearly executed once,” he said.
“He’s a man who really thrives in an atmosphere of conflict. Theologically speaking, he even feels that’s a very important aspect of one’s life – that you’re spiritually dead to the world if you’re not engaged in some form of moral combat.”
His son said Monday in the news release that the family would not be granting interview requests, though he said that was not the result of any ill will toward the media.
“We have, especially more recently, 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.”