A provocative Aylmer church pastor, who’s pushed the envelope on COVID-19 restrictions, made sure everyone knew he was ticketed by London police for attending a rally against public health measures to fight the spread of the virus.
When officers showed up at his house to give Henry Hildebrandt his court summons, his son, Herbert, filmed the exchange that went straight to Facebook, with the Church of God pastor striking a defiant tone as he addressed the camera.
“Police were just at my door here. I apparently just received a ticket,” he says in the video. “We will see where it goes from here.”
He continues: “I intend to do nothing with it because we have the right, according to our constitution, to have a peaceful protest and that is what I attended.”
Friday, Hildebrandt told The Free Press he plans to speak at an anti-restrictions rally in Toronto on Saturday and keep spreading the word that constitutional rights are under attack by COVID-19 safety curbs imposed under an Ontario emergency law.
“It’s not about me or our church . . . We stand behind the people and, whatever it takes, we’ve got to wake the people up and that’s what these rallies are all about,” he said.
Hildebrandt was among about 200 protesters at a so-called “freedom rally” held in London’s Victoria Park last Sunday. Three organizers are facing charges under the emergency law that bans such large gatherings in the face of COVID-19.
“I did expect sooner or later that they (authorities) would cave in to pressure from the public” and charge him, Hildebrandt said.
London police released no names but confirmed a 57-year-old Aylmer man was charged for taking part in an outdoor gathering exceeding provincial crowd limits, and that others who took in Sunday’s rally may also be ticketed.
Hildebrandt has been a lightning rod in the anti-restrictions movement, starting with drive-in church services he held in Aylmer — even after authorities warned him not to — when church buildings were still closed amid the pandemic.
Eventually, such drive-in sessions were permitted.
Since COVID-19’s second wave erupted, Hildebrandt has been a frequent fixture at lockdown backlash rallies in Southwestern Ontario.
Besides Sunday’s gathering in London, authorities have charged organizers of similar rallies held recently in Chatham and Aylmer, and St. Thomas police have warned they’re warming up to lay charges in another such gathering held there.
Under the emergency law, those convicted of organizing a gathering of more than 25 people amid COVID-19 can be fined $10,000 to $100,000, and be jailed up to a year.
But that law was never meant to curb freedom of speech, said Michael Bryant, a former Ontario attorney general who now heads the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He said authorities need to find a balanced approach to permit protest gatherings against the COVID-19 restrictions.
“The problem is, the only way to protest this law is to violate it,” he said, adding he believes such protests should be allowed as long as people spread out to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
Bryant said rally participants charged could offer a defence of freedom of speech, or, where some but not all are charged, argue they’re “unfairly targeted by the police.”
“Charging people is not the solution because, as we see from this case, it ends up being quite arbitrary who gets charged,” he said.
In the video, live-streamed to Hildebrandt’s Facebook page, a London police officer is seen issuing the pastor a ticket and court summons on his doorstep.
In the nearly five-minute-long video, two officers approach Hildebrandt’s door, one doing the talking and leaving the ticket and summons in the pastor’s mailbox.
"Is everyone receiving a ticket that was there?" Hildebrandt asks the officer.
Const. Sandasha Bough said London police are still trying to identify rally participants.
"If members of the public have been identified (as attendees), they could face charges," she said. "If anyone has information, please contact us."
With files by Dale Carruthers, Free Press reporter
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press