Saboteurs: Wiebo LudwigĂs War Against Big Oil

by Andrew Nikiforuk
296 pages,
ISBN: 1551991012

Post Your Opinion
Callous Big Business vs. Ruthless Protest
by Lee Lamothe

Reading and re-reading Andrew Nikiforuk's award-winning Saboteurs is illuminating and frustrating¨both.
As an exposT of the dirty deeds of Big Oil and corporate ruthlessness in the oil patch it's an eye-opener, for we Easterners tend to think that the power produced when we flick a switch, light the gas fireplace, or activate the chainsaw, comes from some magical place where the marvels of engineering and technology produce energy without harm or pain to anyone.
And it's frustrating because the central character in the book is a religious crackpot who endorses the subjugation of women, corporal punishment for children, and "ecotage", a fancy name for terrorism when done in the name of someone's idea of a greater good.
In short strokes, Saboteurs is the David and Goliath story of Wiebo Ludwig, a bible-thumping religious zealot who moves his followers to rural Alberta to escape from the modern world and soon finds himself nose-to-snout with the greedy piggishness of Big Oil. An acrimonious conflict ensues over industry's right to drill around his land. Loud preaching gives way to minor acts of vandalism, which in turn begets terrorist-style bombings. Big Oil has the law and legislation on its side; Ludwig has his twisted vision of the Lord, a hide as tough as leather, and magnetic personal power that brings to mind Charles Manson and David Koresh.
Working with a stockpile of documents and interviews that would be envied by any journalist, Nikiforuk creates a classic story: one versus the many, old versus new, laws versus justice. Gathering, organizing and digesting the research alone must have been a yeomanly task, never mind boiling it all down into a book.
In terms of offering an illuminating experience, Saboteurs is truly an excellent piece of work: Nikiforuk has made the un-understandable readable, and has established a valuable, compelling source of knowledge for the ignorant or indifferent. If you skip over some parts¨being number-dyslexic and intimidated by symbols like H2S, I did that in my first reading about sour gas¨you'll find what really matters: "The colourless substance stinks like rotten eggs and acts like brimstone. Hydrogen sulphide kills by starving cells of oxygen. It attacks the brains first and then paralyzes the lungs. Breathing a good whiff of sour gas is like being winded and hit with hammers on both temples at the same time Ó The gas can steal a man's memory, cripple his lungs, leave him blind, erase his sense of smell, give him the shakes, weaken his heart, and induce psychotic nightmares Ó" Yikes.
I started to feel frustrated at the beginning of the book¨which can fairly be described as "Mother Jonesian," not a bad thing if you admire advocacy journalism, which I don't¨where Wiebo Ludwig gets some editorial forgiveness he doesn't deserve. After Nikiforuk deftly puts religious looniness into historical perspective¨Micah, who told his followers to roll in the dust, Ezekiel laying on his side to make a point, Hosea who married a loose woman, and Jeremiah who decreed it was "better to remove the foreskins of one's heart than to submit to circumcision"¨Wiebo gets to justify one of his nutty beliefs: That a woman, for example, should get down on her hands and knees if ordered to do so by a man and scrub the floor with a toothbrush. And she should do it "with gusto." As Wiebo says: "That's a better way to shamefully expose the man's foolishnessÓ than creating 'a huge argument out of everything.'" On the following page , noting that "Ludwig did his best" to be a good shepherd to his flock and tried to rule it with love, we get this: "In these trying times he flirted and 'fussed' with one of his female parishionersÓ and got involved in a bitter child custody battle between her and her husbandÓ" Flirting and fussing indeed!¨while being a shepherd to his sheep.
A hard-hearted person might just think Preacher Ludwig deserved a rubber tube up his nose, with the other end of it sunk underground in the most noxious sour gas. But Nikiforuk skates across the surface of this particular swamp and saves his ammunition for the intractable and mindlessly aggressive Big Oil and their teams of security goons, as well as the senior levels of the RCMP who certainly appear to be bought and paid for by the industry. Nikiforuk takes mostly amateurish and irritating little shots, such as referring to John Thompson, the director of the conservative Mackenzie Institute, as "intellectual, beer-bellied"; security chief Shel Kelly who sat in on a meeting is described as "watching like a lynx"¨but even these don't derail his relentless documenting of the evils of the oil patch and the rise of Wiebo Ludwig as a demented crusader waging a holy war.
Nikiforuk has the rare skill to create a phrase or an image that catches both ear and eye: Ludwig was looking for "a respite from the storms of life Ó" "Ó he learned about the brokenness of life Ó" And a deformed baby boy "whose grey, lifeless skin peeled at the touch. The baby's head contained no bones and felt like a sack of water Ó" This kind of stuff can make you stop and think, in much the same way the horror of the sour gas statistics puts you back on your heels causing you to realize how sweet the air you breath is. Nikiforuk can actually write and you wish he had been less the journalist at times and showed off a little.
Journalists aren't immune to the huckster's allure but advocacy journalists are generally less easily swayed than others. Nikiforuk, who is probably unparalleled as a journalist when it comes to social issues, seems to have been entranced by the charismatic Wiebo Ludwig. It's easy to conjure up an image of Ludwig, the old romancer, tantalizer, an expert enticer, feeling a twitch on the media fishing line when up out of the stream pops an Andrew Nikiforuk who is in season and Wiebo is allowed to take his limit. It would have been easier, had Nikiforuk not been so damn thorough and organized, to dismiss Saboteurs as yet another pinko attack on Nasty Old Big Something: Big Oil, Big Business, Big Government. But the book is much more than that, and I doubt any reader, who isn't already aware of the complex and vital issues emerging from the oil patch, will skip past the news stories that come out of there.
Saboteurs leaves one with a head full of dizzying questions. What would I have done had my family been backed into a frustrating corner by laws that seemed loaded against us in favour of Big Oil or any other Big Business? Is there ever a time for direct action, a time when bombs and bullets become justifiable? And how would things have played out had Wiebo Ludwig decided to settle his zanies down in Vancouver, say, around the corner from an abortion clinic: Even Nikiforuk grasps that "Protesters like Ludwig understood that there was much to protest in the world."

Lee Lamothe is the author of three true crime books: Global Mafia: The New World Order of Organized Crime, Criminal Acts II, and the best-selling Bloodlines: The Rise and Fall of the Mafia's Royal Family.Trail of Misery: The Global Trade in Illegal Migrants, and The Last Thief, a novel, will be published by Harper Collins and ECW Press, respectively, in 2003.

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