Pastor Henry Hildebrandt speaks during a demonstration against actions by health authorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 in St. Thomas, Ont., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Geoff Robins
In Ontario, a stern-faced bearded man speaking to yesterday’s fire and brimstone preacher has become a common sight at anti-mask rallies.
His name is Henry Hildebrandt. He is a preacher for the strict denomination of the Church of God Restoration in the small town of Aylmer, Ontario, about 190 kilometers west of Toronto. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hildebrandt has earned a position as one of Canada’s most famous COVID-19 provocateurs – alongside Adam Skelly, a man who refused close his grill restaurant; and Chris Saccoccia, the childless man who started Mothers Against Social Distancing.
“We want our God-given freedoms,” Hildebrandt preached to a revered crowd during an anti-lockdown rally in Alymer in November. “Freedom taken from one of us is freedom taken from all of us. Christians died for them. ”
For the past few months he’s been sharing the stage (i.e., Zoom conferences) with the likes of David Icke – a conspiracy theorist best known for pondering whether elites like the royal family are actually reptilian humanoids – and the one in exile living Canadian politician Randy Hillier at an upcoming “rally” with Alex Jones, arguably the most influential conspirator in the world.
Well, this is neither Hildebrandt nor the first brush of his church with shame. The Restoration of God’s Church in Aylmer was hit by a wave of media coverage in the early 2000s when they waged a violent battle against child welfare groups. Hildebrandt said he would go to jail to protect parents’ right to beat their children. (He never went to jail.)
Some former followers of the Restoration of the Church of God have openly questioned whether Hildebrandt and his Manitoba branch (which has also joined the civil disobedience) are real. Gloria Froese, a former Manitoba Church member, described the group as a group with a dress code, strict rules, and hierarchies fixated on apocalyptic ideas and a desire to save unbelievers. She believes it is using the fight against COVID rules to recruit new members. Froese said in recent years the church has been trying to blend in with other movements to attract attention – like last May when members of a division for the Restoration of the Church of God in the United States participated in a protest against Black Lives Matter, to support the protesters.
Henry Hildebrandt will give a speech at an anti-lockdown rally in Alymer in December 2020. Photo via YouTube screenshot.
“You want the exposure; They want to bring in the crowd, ”Froese told VICE World News. “They think now that they have this exposure that people are just about to start flowing in.”
It’s not just Hildebrandt and his flock, however. The number of churches of different denominations that have fined or taken legal action against the government for their assembly is long. The number of pastors and churches struggling to fight back is increasing week by week – including one pastor who is currently behind bars for not accepting COVID restrictions.
COVID-19 rules are changing from province to province and some believers have wondered if the rules are arbitrary. For example, in Ontario, a church may have 30 percent capacity, but in BC, where some restaurants have limited capacity, places of worship cannot hold face-to-face services. Three Fraser Valley churches have just submitted a constitutional challenge to the British Columbia government for freedom of peaceful assembly, and they are not the only ones.
Canada’s constitutional rights are ambiguous, according to Kristopher Kinsinger, an attorney and LLM student at McGill who has written extensively on the subject. They can be limited to a reasonable limit for the common good – like during a pandemic.
At the moment, Kinsinger said capping large gatherings like general assemblies seems to qualify a reasonable limit, but if the vaccine is distributed and cases decline, it may not be.
“Think of it as a scale,” Kinsinger told VICE World News. “At some point the balance will shift in favor of the applicants. It’s more about when and not if. “
It is only a small minority of churches in Canada that blatantly question these rules, but they do it loudly and make a lot of headlines. In recent weeks, thanks to Edmonton’s Pastor James Coates, their struggle has been brought to the fore of the media cycle.
Pastor James Coates preached a sermon just days before he went into police custody. Photo via YouTube screenshot.
Coates, who preaches at Grace Life Public Church, volunteered on February 16 for violating lockdown regulations by holding full congregations without distancing or masks. Coates has since been taken into custody for disagreeing with the terms of the bail. In this condition he has to operate his church with a capacity of 15 percent. John Carpay, Coates’ attorney and president of the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms (a legal advocate group that has spoken out against lockdown restrictions), released a statement stating that Coates is happy with it, pending all COVID-19 regulations Remaining incarcerated via religious gatherings Alberta is being dropped – which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“Pastor Coates is a peaceful Christian minister,” Carpay said in the statement. “The justice of peace should not have demanded that he violate his conscience and effectively stop cultivating his church as a condition for release. This is a miscarriage of justice. ”
(Nothing prevents Coates from preaching his church, only that capacity cannot exceed 15 percent.) Coates and Carpay appeal the bail.
It is not just the Holy Spirit that drives Coates and Grace Life Church. Conspiracy theories that downplay the severity of COVID-19 are rife on his website. A pop-up “Public Statement” with “Pandemic” in quotation marks reads: “We are deeply concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally change society and deprive us of all civil liberties. Until the so-called “pandemic” is over, if it is ever allowed to be over, Albertans will be totally dependent on the government rather than free, wealthy and independent. ”
Coates could remain behind bars until his court date in early May. And although many in the public view his actions as selfish, Grace Life continues to hold services and has received great support from the Christian community. Coates’ imprisonment so outraged some preachers that they were inspired to open their doors. In Calgary, Fairview Baptist Church held a full service in honor of Coates on February 21.
“I’m prepared if that’s the same consequence for me,” Pastor Tim Stephens told Global News. “I know that other pastors who stand by him and want to support him and our brothers and sisters in GraceLife Church feel the same way.”
Many churches across the country have received fines for holding full congregations, but Coates is the only one to have been taken into custody so far.
“If the goal was to get the church to comply, then they (the government) were unsuccessful,” Kinsinger said. Instead, it unwittingly martyred Coates. Believing this could have been avoided, Kinsinger points to a church in Waterloo that eventually abided by the rules after being fined for holding mass gatherings.
“Fines seemed to go deeper than arresting individual pastors because then it becomes a matter of story, not whether or not the law is obeyed,” he said. “The arrest of a man is not only very drastic, in my opinion, and likely an overreaction. I’m not even sure that it will help the government achieve its goal here.”
However, it allows them to get more attention.
Hildebrandt recently posted an eleven minute YouTube video showing his support for Coates and calling pastors who interviewed Coates “cowards” and asking them to “stand up.” Froese said it was surprising that Hildebrandt and the Manitoba Church of God Restoration were supporting other Christian churches, as much of their preaching during their time in the church focused on “false or Babylonian preachers”.
She said that while it is clear that her actions improve the profile of certain churches, she cannot see denominations like the Restoration of the Church of God being able to recruit followers because of their strict religious beliefs.
“I don’t see anti-government anti-lockdown people who want to join a group with such restrictive rules,” said Froese. “(The protesters) are all about their individual rights.”
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.