In Ontario, a bearded stern-faced man who speaks with the fire and brimstone preacher of yesteryear has become a common sight at anti-mask rallies.
His name is Henry Hildebrandt. He’s a preacher for the strict Church of God Restoration denomination in the small town of Aylmer, Ontario, about 190 kilometres west of Toronto. Since the start of the pandemic, Hildebrandt, through his fiery speeches demanding churches be reopened and pushing back hard on pandemic regulations, has earned himself a position of one of Canada’s most well-known COVID-19 provocateurs—next to Adam Skelly, a man who refused to close his barbecue restaurant, and Chris Saccoccia, the childless man who started Mothers Against Social Distancing.
“We want our God-given freedoms,” Hildebrandt preached to an adoring crowd during an anti-lockdown rally in Alymer in November. “Freedom taken away from one of us is freedom taking away from all of us. Christians died for them.”
In recent months he’s shared the stage (well, Zoom conferences) with the likes of David Icke—a conspiracy theorist best known for pondering if elites like the royal family are actually reptilian humanoids—and exiled Canadian politician Randy Hillier, and is scheduled to speak at an upcoming “rally” with Alex Jones, arguably the world’s most influential peddler of conspiracies.
Now, this isn’t Hildebrandt, nor his church’s, first brush with infamy. The Church of God Restoration in Aylmer was hit in the early 2000s with a wave of media coverage when they waged a fierce battle against children’s aid groups. Hildebrandt said he would go to jail to protect the right of parents to hit their children. (He never went to jail.)
Some former followers of the Church of God Restoration have openly questioned if Hildebrandt and its Manitoba branch (which has also joined in on the civil disobedience) are genuine. Gloria Froese, a former member of the Manitoba church, described the group as one with a dress code, a strict rules and hierarchy fixated on apocalyptic ideas and a desire to save non-believers. She thinks it's using the fight against COVID rules to recruit new members. Froese said in recent years the church has attempted to insert itself into other movements to get attention—such as last May when members of a Church of God Restoration branch in the United States attended a Black Lives Matter protest in support of the protesters.
“They want the exposure; they want to bring in the multitudes,” Froese told VICE World News. “They think now that they've got this exposure that people are just going to start flowing in.”
It’s not just Hildebrandt and his flock, though. The number of churches, from different denominations, that have faced fines for congregating or have brought forward legal action against the government is lengthy. The number of pastors and churches making efforts to fight back is increasing every week—including one pastor who is currently behind bars for not accepting COVID restrictions.
COVID-19 rules change from province to province and have some people of faith questioning if the rules are arbitrary. For example, in Ontario, a church can have 30 percent capacity but in B.C., where some restaurants are open to limited capacity, places of worship can’t hold any in-person services. Three Fraser Valley churches just brought forward a constitutional challenge on the grounds of freedom of peaceful assembly to the B.C. government and they're not the only ones.
According to Kristopher Kinsinger, a lawyer and LLM student at McGill who has written extensively on this topic, Canadian constitutional rights aren’t definite. They can be restricted to a reasonable limit with the public good in mind—like during a pandemic.
For now, Kinsinger said limiting large gatherings like full congregations seems to meet the qualification of a reasonable limit, but as the vaccine becomes distributed and cases start to recede that may not be the case.
“Imagine it as scales,” Kinsinger told VICE World News. “At some point, the balance is going to shift in favour of the claimants. It's more of a question of when, not if.”
It’s only a small minority of churches in Canada flagrantly challenging these rules, but they're doing it loudly and grabbing a lot of headlines. In recent weeks their fight has been brought to the forefront of the media cycle thanks to Edmonton pastor James Coates.
Coates, who preaches at Grace Life Public Church, turned himself in on Feb. 16 for breaking lockdown regulations by holding full congregations without any distancing or masks. Coates has been held in custody ever since because he won’t agree to the bail conditions, which state he must operate his church at 15 percent capacity. John Carpay, Coates’ lawyer and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (a legal advocacy group that has been staunchly against lockdown restrictions), released a statement that indicated Coates is content to stay incarcerated until all COVID-19 regulations on religious gatherings in Alberta are dropped—which likely won’t happen anytime soon.
“Pastor Coates is a peaceful Christian minister,” Carpay said in the statement. “The Justice of the Peace should not have required him to violate his conscience and effectively stop pastoring his church as a condition to be released. This is a miscarriage of justice.”
(There is nothing stopping Coates from preaching to his church, only that it must not exceed 15 percent capacity.) Coates and Carpay are appealing the bail conditions.
It’s not just the holy spirit driving Coates and those at Grace Life Church; conspiracy theories that downplay the severity of COVID-19 are rife on its website. A pop-up “public statement” that has “pandemic” in quotes says: “We are gravely concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us of all of our civil liberties. By the time the so-called 'pandemic' is over if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent.”
Coates could remain behind bars until his court date in early May. And despite many in the public decreeing his actions as selfish, Grace Life continues to hold services and has had large showings of support from the Christian community. Coates’ time in custody has so outraged some preachers that it’s inspired them to open their doors. In Calgary, Fairview Baptist Church held a full service on Feb. 21 in honour of Coates.
“I’m prepared if that’s the same consequence for myself,” Pastor Tim Stephens told Global News. “I know other pastors feel the same way, that want to stand with him and support him and our brothers and sisters at GraceLife Church.”
Many churches across the country have received fines for holding full congregations but Coates, as of yet, is the only one to have been taken into custody.
"If the goal was to get the church to comply, they (the government) didn't succeed," Kinsinger said; instead, it unwittingly made Coates a martyr. Kinsinger thinks that could have been avoided, pointing to a church in Waterloo that eventually complied to the rules after being fined for holding mass gatherings.
“Fines seemed to cut deeper than arresting individual pastors, because then that becomes the story, not whether or not the laws are being followed,” he said. “Arresting a man, in my opinion, is not only very drastic, and probably a bit of an overreaction, I’m not even sure if it’s going to help the government achieve its goal here.”
It does allow them to achieve more attention though.
Recently Hildebrandt put out an 11-minute YouTube video in which he laid down his support for Coates, and called pastors that questioned Coates “cowards” and urged them to “stand up.” Froese said it’s surprising Hildebrandt and the Manitoba Church of God Restoration are supporting other Christian churches as a big portion of their sermons during her time in the church was focused on “false or Babylonian preachers.”
She said while it’s clear their actions are raising certain church’s profiles, she can’t see denominations like Church of God Restoration being able to recruit followers due to their strict religious beliefs.
“I don't see the anti-government anti-lockdown type of people wanting to join a group with restrictive rules like this,” said Froese. “(The protesters) are all about their individual rights.”
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