Aylmer, Ontario, is a town of some 7500 people on the north shore of Lake Erie. It was founded in 1817 by a settler from New York State named John Van Patter. For a couple of decades it was known as Troy, before being renamed for Lord Aylmer, governor in chief of British North America. Today it is home to a substantial Mennonite and Amish population. Several hundred residents are members or adherents of the Church of God. These peace-loving pilgrims—led by their fiery and not uncontroversial pastor, Henry Hildebrand—have been engaged in battle for over a year now with the provincial powers that be, who have lately besieged the Church of God as if it were ancient Troy.
The story of this struggle is told in part on the church's website. It is told quite differently by the CBC and by the judge who has ordered the church's doors shuttered and locked. The church's version goes back to the drive-in services it pioneered when the COVID saga was just beginning and “two weeks to flatten the curve” were not yet many weeks more. Since April 2020, it has repeatedly violated restrictions on religious meetings. The state's version describes Aylmer, in consequence of the church's growing defiance, as “a cauldron of hostility.” In mid-May, 2021, the church was found in contempt of court and its building was closed until further notice. A video portrays the ensuing drama as Justice Bruce Thomas's order was carried out.
Ontario's COVID regime is a very harsh one. At the time of the order there were less than a dozen active “cases” in the town, none of them associated with the church. Nevertheless, in Ontario's shutdown zones religious gatherings are restricted to ten people. As in other provinces, opening up to “non-essential” activities like worship has been made to rest on mass vaccination of young and old alike. With a population under forty million, Canada has ordered (or has options on) some 400 million doses. Its federal health minister and its premiers have begun making clear that lockdowns will remain in place until vaccination is all but complete.
The country's infection and mortality rates (as opposed to case fatality rate, which everywhere tends to be less than 2 percent and heavily concentrated among those who have reached average life expectancy) are much more modest than America's for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that excess death figures for the past year are remarkably low in Canada as elsewhere, federal and provincial governments continue to operate under emergency powers that are said to trump the citizen's constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. Mounting evidence for the futility of lockdowns, and the harm done by lockdowns, has changed nothing.
The perpetuation of emergency powers has not yet been properly tested in the courts, where its justification will be impossible to demonstrate. But Canada's leaders show no interest in that. They do little more than insist, against all the evidence, that the healthcare system will soon fail. Vaccination and more vaccination is the answer to every question. Vaccination passports (based on QR codes and bio-digital convergence strategies) are being prepared, and what the Church of God in Alymer can expect is that when reopening takes place it will not include the unvaccinated. That idea has no small support, though it promises to escalate the conflict right across the country.
What appears to be at issue in this backwoods battle of Troy is the fair Helen's favors, “Helen” being the ideal citizen construed as she who dutifully submits to the rule of law—or rather, as she who always does what she is told, even if told to stay home for months on end and refrain from in-person worship despite being neither sick nor contagious and despite those orders being issued without constitutional scrutiny. The rule of law must prevail, even if “the rule of law” has itself become lawless. Medical science must prevail, even when this “science” is no longer science but something that violates its own most fundamental principles and indeed those of the Nuremberg Code.
Henry Hildebrand makes a peculiar Paris, perhaps, but he's not the only pastor north of the border to try to lure Helen away from Menelaus and in consequence to feel “the people's wrath.” In Alberta, three Protestant pastors (James Coates, Artur Pawlawski, and Tim Stevens) have already seen the inside of a jail for defying that province's ban on large gatherings and its demands that worshippers, whether of God or of the state, be masked and de-socialized. Hildebrand's own arrest may come at any time, for Ontario's limit of ten worshippers applies outdoors as well as indoors, and his flock has begun meeting outdoors since the sheriff installed the new locks. Unlike Pastor Coates's flock in Edmonton, Hildebrand's congregation has been meeting openly rather than in secret.
Not a few who are following this tale think the tragedy lies in the seduction; that is, in the grandstanding of camera-hungry pastors who have set themselves above the law of the land. This seems to me an unsustainable (not to say uncharitable) hypothesis. Grandstanding there may be. A tragic seduction, too. There is also a clever trick, a Trojan Horse. But in this Canadian tale these don't shake out quite as they do in Homer.
COVID itself is the Trojan Horse through which tyranny has been introduced. The grandstanding is done by the public health officers who are now in charge of our lives. (Who is in charge of them is another question.) Helen, for the most part, has been seduced by her inbred respect for law and for genuine science into submission to lawlessness and to rank superstition.
What the authorities are afraid of is that this ruse, and with it their own credibility and immunity, will be revealed by the likes of the Church of God in Aylmer: by places where people meet, sing, pray, and hug without getting sick and dying in droves; places where people, as an accident of their faith in man's public duty to God and neighbor, expose the lie that dealing with a coronavirus requires trading away basic rights and freedoms.
Douglas Farrow is professor of theology and ethics at McGill University in Montreal.
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