***This post is going to primarily be about the 2011 documentary Wiebo’s War by director/producer David York which can be seen for free at the National Film Board website.  It will also draw upon the book ‘Saboteurs: Weibo Ludwig’s War against Big Oil’ by Andrew Nikiforuk for added information.***

The events of the late 1990s which came to be known as the Oil Patch War are useful as examples of real life eco-terrorism aimed at Canada’s energy infrastructure, but they also give us a real-life example of a charismatic leader in a rebellion.  The next several sections of Uprising that we’re going to be dissecting deals with the background and history of Molly Grace, the leader of the NPA.  One of the useful things about the documentary Wiebo’s War is that it offers a real life example of a Molly Grace-type figure, in the form of the Reverend Wiebo Ludwig.

Some quick background: Although they were often collectively referred to as the Ludwigs, the Community at Trickle Creek was made up of three families: the Ludwigs, Boonstra and the Shilthuis families.  Revered Ludwig presided over them as a spiritual leader, and while the families were in the process of merging through marriage (two of the Ludwig boys married two of his friend Richard Boonstra’s daughters and a Ludwig daughter married Trevor Shilthuis).  They also had close connections with outside individuals and families including environmental activists and the family of Robert Wraight (a man who would eventually turn informer for the RCMP).

In the early 90s local energy companies moved into the area, building and establishing wells to exploit the region’s huge natural gas reserves.  Almost overnight the Community found itself virtually surrounded by nearly a dozen wells, one barely a hundred meters past their property line, all pumping ‘sour gas’ a variant of natural gas potentially contaminated with other chemicals such as hydrogen sulphide.

The issue of sour gas exploitation is one that still hasn’t been properly resolved in the province of Alberta.  Hydrogen sulphide is an incredibly toxic substance, easily capable of causing permanent injury or even death at very small concentrations[1].  When the Community began noticing adverse effects appearing with their community livestock (nearly half their goats miscarried in one season), their inquiries and complaints were ignored by the pro-oil provincial government.  When Wiebo’s wife Mamie miscarried herself, the community declared war.

It began with minor acts of sabotage and theft of mining equipment, coupled with an ongoing program of aggressive legal complaints and publicity stunts.  Roads were seeded with nails, tools and parts vanished from work sites, while Wiebo and his wife came to be on a first name basis with the local RCMP, gas companies and provincial energy board.  On one occasion Wiebo burst into the offices of AEC West with a bottle of sour gas chemicals and threatened to spill the contents, leading to his first arrest[2].  On another occasion, one of the sour gas wells was discovered to be encased in over a ton of concrete, which had been shaped into a tombstone bearing the epitaph RIP Norcen.

RIP Norcen
Whatever else you might think, there’s no getting around the fact that this is pretty badass.  

As time went on, the acts of sabotage became more serious, including the destruction of well equipment using acid, to actual bombings that left other residents at risk of potential gas leaks.  When a second miscarriage (this time of a grandchild) occurred in 1998, a major bombing of a Suncor well led to Wiebo Ludwig and Richard Boonstra being arrested in the vicinity.  Despite this, the possibility of a conviction uncertain.

It was around this time that Robert Wraight (a long time acquaintance and friend but recently pushed out of the community’s orbit) turned informer and began secretly taping his visits to Trickle Creek in an effort to find evidence that would convict Ludwig and Boonstra.  The operation would yield only moderate success, and in the process the RCMP and energy company AEC West would conspire to bomb one of that company’s wells as a way of building up their informer’s credibility[3].⁠  Ludwig and Boonstra would be formally charged later that year.

It was early on in the trial of Ludwig and Boonstra that the family van was itself bombed.  Both Wiebo and Mamie were just metres away from the van when it blew, but escaped with minor injuries.  Not long after this attack came the incident in which a group of drunken teenagers drove onto the Trickle Creek property.  They were essentially acting on a dare, rolling onto the property, revving their engines before peeling out.  But with the community on edge from the recent bombing, the noise threw much of the family into a panic.  Someone from the household retrieved a rifle and fired a shot, and sixteen year old Karman Willis was killed.

Van Bombing.png
No one would ever be charged with the bombing of the Ludwig van.
Karman Willis
No one would be charged with Karman Willis’s killing either.

A few months later Wiebo Ludwig was convicted of a handful of the over twenty charges he’d faced, and was sentenced to 24 months in prison.

Over the course of the War, the number of people living in the houses and trailers at Trickle Creek would rise from thirty to nearly fifty, with a regular cycle of visitors and long term guests.  It’s worth noting that, for all the people who potentially could have betrayed the members of the community who’d engaged in bombings or sabotage, only Robert Wraight (a late arrival and perennial outsider in the community) would ultimately turn against Weibo.  The rest of the community would not only maintain an absolute silence in the face of repeated RCMP raids and questioning, but would often assist the men responsible for the sabotage by providing diversions, driving getaway vehicles, and otherwise providing cover[4].

And it worked.  For years the family, including many young children, exhibited a remarkable level of discipline and solidarity that almost succeeded in keeping their patriarch out of prison.

Wiebo Ludwig is a legitimately fascinating and unsettling person, and the documentary Wiebo’s War shows these qualities in a remarkably intimate way.  Articulate, passionate, and possessing the calm certainty of a martyr, it doesn’t take long to realize how this man was able to pursue his vendetta and maintain secrecy in the face of police investigation and public opposition.  Perhaps most stunning is the obvious love Wiebo has for his family and his community, and that this love is returned unquestioningly by the residents of Trickle Creek[5].

Now, there are two main points I want to focus in on from the documentary.  One comes right at the beginning when producer and director David York had one of his first interviews with Wiebo and some of the community members who are expressing concern at participating in the documentary.

The concern wasn’t that York would represent them unfairly or that they may let slip some vital detail that could implicate one of their number in an attack.  Instead their concerns centre around the fact that David York is an atheist, and as such may prove incapable of grasping the community’s motivations and beliefs.  In later interviews, David detailed how this proved to be a serious sticking point within the community, and the greatest obstacle that he had to overcome in order to make his documentary.

At the time, Wiebo Ludwig was still the prime suspect in a number of unsolved acts of eco-terrorism from the 1990s, and as the documentary was being filmed, he had come under suspicion for a series of anti-fracking bombings just across the border in British Columbia (he would actually be arrested for a short period during the filming of the documentary).  But his biggest concern in participating with this documentary was that the filmaker was “in terrible darkness.”

This is (in my opinion, at least) the crucial thing that Bland gets wrong about fanaticism.  The fanatic is dedicated utterly to a cause, but it’s their cause.  Not somebody else’s.  Wiebo’s ideology was entirely religious in its origin, and he applied it, largely unfiltered, upon the world that opposed him.  He didn’t set out to fight big oil.  Big oil didn’t matter to him directly.  He set out to build a “true” Christian community and saw Big Oil as threatening that.  He didn’t have a problem with the RCMP and the Province of Alberta.  When his confrontation with the oil companies first began he appealed directly to these institutions for help.  It was only when they sided with Big Oil that he began to see them as part and parcel of the same threatening force.

2 Mounties + Wiebo
You know they’re rural RCMP ’cause of the hats.

As we will see in the coming chapter, Bland has created a fanatic leading a radical native ideology which is perfectly hostile towards ‘white’ society.  But the thing is, a fanatical native ideology, whatever its character, wouldn’t care that much about ‘white’ people.

If the revolution ever comes, it will be about them, not ‘us.’

Indigenous movements are about indigenous issues, and while settler-colonial society figures pretty prominently in these issues, it’s as an outside factor exerting an influence.  Not the main concern itself.

If you actually go out and read actual revolutionary literature, one thing you’ll notice pretty quickly is how parochial it can sometimes get.  The Magna-Carta contains a number of what can only be described as administrative land management issues.  Stalin-era communism spent a great deal energy denouncing rival forms of communism[6].   In the American Civil War, Texas’ articles of secession spends a surprising amount of time whining about a lack of Federal military support to deal with cross-border banditry from Mexico.

In more recent years, one of the darker tones in the political discourse of the Mohawk nation centres around a ‘marry out, get out’ policy regarding Mohawk women who marry non-indigenous men.

While revolutionary movements will almost always have some kind of recognizable, universal principle at their core, depending on the circumstances this principle could be surrounded and even buried under some grievances and positions that are often very unique to a given place and time.

The best illustration of this comes later in the documentary when York talked to Wiebo about the shooting death of Karman Willis.  In one of the most stunning moments of the film, Wiebo describes his thoughts as he learned of the news that a young woman had been killed in the confrontation. Starting at 1:03:30 in the documentary:

[Wiebo describes receiving a phone call from his attorney Richard Second hours after the shooting.]

“Wiebo!” he says.  “Did one of your girls get shot?”  That was his first remark.  I said “No, what’s going on?  Not one of my girls.”

And he says “Apparently according to the news some girl got shot at your place.”  And that’s the first time it occurred to me there may have been a girl in the truck, you know?  Who got shot.

[…]

And I just kind of…[he passes a hand over his face]…you know, for fifteen minutes.  ‘What is this going to mean?  This is really tough.

[David York speaks up] You must have felt sick.

[Wiebo again] Yeah I did.  And then, all of a sudden…uh…[waves his hand] it was gone.  Like, don’t get so worked up about it.

A bit later, at 1:14:40, after an altercation in town.

The history perhaps…and the anger…that has developed out of that.  The embarrassment to her parents.  You know?  Obviously…drunk and with a bunch of boys.  You know, it was very embarrassing for them…she was just about sixteen.

Yeah.  He said that.  A few minutes later in the the film he would be asked to elaborate and he would insist that he feared no man, only God.

To be sure, he could have made a case for self-defence.  Although Karman Willis meant his family no harm, there was no way for anyone to know that at the time.  He could (with some justification) have insisted that the entire affair was a tragic accident.  A fatal misunderstanding.  Instead, he denies responsibility, and implicitly blames the victim.

This is the thing about an ideology that is held to such an intense degree.  It will overrule even basic, pragmatic concerns about safety, about popular support.  Even about common decency.  The thing to understand about the Oil Patch War was that, for a long time, the Trickle Creek community had a lot of support amongst the locals, and even after their campaign had shifted to bombing there was at least some grudging acknowledgement that their cause at least had some legitimacy.

Weibo Ludwig’s response to the shooting of Karman Willis shattered that legitimacy almost overnight.  Note that is his response to the shooting, not just the shooting itself.  In researching his book, author Andrew Nikiforuk noted that at least some of the locals were willing to acknowledge (off the record) that the kids behaved recklessly and that the shooter (whomever that was) likely did have reason to believe they were acting in self defence.  Not only did those opinions vanish, but at a town meeting just a few days after residents openly asked if they might be justified in visiting vigilante justice upon Trickle Creek.

More than a decade after the fact Wiebo Ludwig hadn’t changed his tune.

This is the thing about being a true believer (or fanatic, depending on your perspective): It can instil incredible commitment and devotion.  It can grant an individual with an almost impenetrable strength of certainty.  But it can just as easily burn bridges and drive away potential allies.

I’m not going to claim that this is some kind of perfect dissertation on how a revolutionary (or terrorist) really thinks.  Just that this is something which needs to be considered.  You don’t often get a chance to see a person like this up close, in their own terms.  The image is…unsettling.

And it’s very different from the people Douglas Bland is about to introduce us to.

anImage_2.tiff

[1] A lot of the literature from the early years of the natural gas industry refer to workers being “knocked down” by hydrogen sulphide, as the effects of the gas could overcome a man so quickly that he would fall as though physically struck.  Even a relatively mild exposure could leave an individual with permanent damage to their nervous system.

[2] He was never charged, largely because in carrying out this stunt he gassed himself, becoming the sole casualty of the protest.  The company was concerned about charging a man with assault when he almost died from chemicals pumped from their own wells.

[3] One of the things that Douglas Bland doesn’t seem to recall is that, much like the FBI, the RCMP has had its own history of what might politely be called dubious tactics.

[4] In fact, in some of the earlier episodes of monkey-wrenching, it is suspected that perhaps the younger daughters may have been actual perpetrators.  Oil company workers often noted the younger children playing on/near the access road running past the property shortly before their trucks would strike nails which had been scattered across their path.

[5] It’s depressing that such a thing should be seen as remarkable, but the community at Trickle Creek never faced any allegation of abuse of mistreatment of any of the women or children.  Now personally I get twitchy with groups like this, in that I feel raising children (particularly girls) in such a restrictive environment is a form of abuse itself, but there has never been a report of abuse from within Trickle Creek, and all of the people there (including the women and girls) seem legitimately happy.

[6] I have no idea what a Menshivic is, but being one in Stalin’s Russia could apparently get you sent to the gulags for a decade or more.

 

2 thoughts on “Film Studies – Wiebo’s War

  1. The Mensheviks initially were a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the other being the Bolsheviks. Both factions understood that the social and economic order of Russia needed drastic changes, but the Mensheviks were the faction more inclined to moderation and compromise with other political parties to actually get reforms done.

    Naturally, this irritated the far more radical Bolsheviks, and by the start of WWI reconciliation of the two factions wasn’t going to happen. Fast forward to 1918 and the Bolsheviks are now the faction in control of the Revolutionary Government/nascent Soviet Union and you get all the vitriol and violence that you get when a fanatic feels that some people just aren’t revolutionary enough and they have the mechanisms to take righteous vengeance on you for what are objectively minor ideological differences and your willingness to “surrender” to the other side (read as compromise with the opposition).

    It’s like that scene in “Life of Brian” where the People’s Liberation Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Liberation Front are arguing over ways to resist the Roman occupation – except John Cleese would be viciously murdering Eric Idle. Or if the new PPC party gets into power and decides that its first act will be to execute the Conservative Party leadership and imprison the rank and file party membership because they aren’t as “true conservative“ as they are.

    Bland is back to the Orc WAAAGGGGHHHH!!!! characterization of the movement (or rather never left it). Revolutionary movements have factions. Those factions often spend as much time fighting amongst themselves as they do fighting the opposition. A better view of Uprising might have former First Nations soldiers, Mounties, police or people who didn`t join the Movement being targeted for assassinations, or factions having rather heated debates over ways and means to achieve the Movement`s goals. Such a telling could have the government trying to exploit said divisions, while finding itself on the back foot trying to figure out who`s who.

    But that would require humanizing the characters and not relying on a monolithic view of a scary òther`.

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    1. Yeah that sounds about right. If first encountered the term in Soviet author Vasilliye Grossman’s ‘Life & Fate’ where there’s a subplot about a group of captured Party Members in a Nazi POW camp who are conspiring against a group of Menshiviks held in the same camp. The Menshiviks were “liberated” from Soviet custody by the invading Nazis only to be immediately detained again by the same as dangerous subversives anyway. Grossman, having grown up deeply immersed in communism, never bothered to explain the difference, which gives the subplot a kind of ‘Judean People’s Front’ tone that definitely wasn’t intentional but lent those parts some really dark humour. Two groups of communists, held by the Nazis, engaged in a kind of purity war over who’s the true communist.
      I think it was the Irish who had a joke about the first task of a new Irish political organization was to plan for the inevitable schism?

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