Harold Ristau was born in Kitchener, Ontario, and deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan in the Canadian armed forces as a military chaplain. He told a local paper he was motivated to join the military after helping Afghan refugees with asylum cases while he pastored an inner-city church in Montreal. In 2014, Canada awarded Ristau one of its highest military recognitions, the Chief of the Defense Staff Commendation, for “achievements beyond the line of duty.”
He wore that medal atop his veteran uniform when he visited the trucker Freedom Convoy in Ottawa on Feb. 12, he told The Federalist in a phone interview. There, smartphone cameras captured him leading other veterans in slowly dismantling a blockade around a war memorial, then cleaning and decorating the monument. Police stood by and watched.
Then Ristau led attendees in the Lord’s Prayer, Apostle’s Creed, and a rendition of “O, Canada,” the national anthem. He also gave a benediction and led the crowd in an impromptu prayer for peace and the well-being of those in government, as well as accountability for their abuses of the Canadian people over the past two years. The convoy began when the Canadian government started enforcing vaccine passports on truckers and others at its border with the United States.
“We prayed to hold those who have done bad, who need to repent and take account for wrongdoing, that they be held accountable for their sins and receive the mercy of God,” Ristau told The Federalist. “We prayed that there be no injuries, that no one here would have a hateful thought in our hearts, that our hearts would be filled with love.”
Ristau noted that before police closed in on the protesters, the demonstration had a sort of market fair attitude, with bouncy castles for children, soup kitchens for the hungry, and organized cleanups of public property. When there were complaints about the truckers’ noise and local disruptions, they stopped making noise after 6 p.m., local news accounts confirm. He also witnessed that the truckers kept emergency lanes open during their protest to protect locals.
For his peaceful participation in this public assembly, Ristau has faced criticism and threats from fellow pastors, fellow citizens, the government-run Canadian media, and the government itself. On Feb. 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, which he claims allows the Canadian government to seize the children and property of anyone who attended the protest, without a court order or even proceeding.
“Since this legislation was enacted in 1988, we have faced separatist movements that sought to break up the country, terrorist movements that sought to wreak havoc and a pandemic that has brought our society to a standstill. Not once has the federal government resorted to this law or these extraordinary and overreaching measures,” noted Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley on Sunday.
The Canadian government has also deployed anti-terrorist banking measures to shut down the personal and crowdfunding accounts of those involved in the protests.
Canadian police arrested nearly 200 protesters Sunday and threatened those who brought their children to the Ottawa protest with up to five years in prison. In response, convoy organizers announced an orderly departure from the nation’s capital. On Monday, the Canadian Senate is scheduled to review Trudeau’s use of the act previously known as the War Measures Act, which was only used once before to unilaterally suspend the rule of law in the country, during a hostage and murder situation in Parliament in the 1970s.
Using the act in response to a peaceful protest with largely only traffic violation-level offenses, Ristau said in an interview with the Christian radio program Issues, Etc. last week, means “you basically declare war on your own people.” As a Canadian veteran — he is now a civilian chaplain supervising Canadian military chaplains — threatening to use war powers against one’s own citizens is a clear breach of law and public trust, he said.
It’s also dangerous to a democracy, in which governments are supposed to wield their powers under the rule of law and with the consent of the governed. Yet “from the get-go Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has treated [the Canadian truckers] like terrorists,” Ristau said on the program. “You don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Violence related to the protest has been largely used by those opposed to the convoy and its counterparts in other parts of Canada. Perhaps the most significant act of violence was when a man allegedly drove an SUV headlong into convoy supporters, injuring four.
While the Royal Mounted Canadian Police cleared Ottawa streets over the weekend, they trampled several protesters with their horses, including an elderly woman with a walker, according to the Toronto Sun. Police also beat journalists while clearing the streets over the weekend, according to videos. The government is investigating several incidents of alleged police violence and allegedly leaked police messages including “Time for the protesters to hear our jackboots on the ground.”
“Over in Ottawa on Friday they were singing ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Ristau told The Federalist. “We have masses of people praying in front of the police as they come in and use pepper spray and rubber bullets on them.”
Earlier, the Canadian government and crowdfunding site GoFundMe attempted to confiscate millions of dollars in donations to the convoy. The identities of donors to the fund were publicly released, after which some donors have been fired from their jobs. Private citizens who contributed have had bricks thrown through their shop windows, they told the Sun.
“When you make protesting illegality illegal, what does that mean for democracy? That’s why protesters won’t go home and are staying to be arrested. When it’s illegal to protest illegality, what measures do we have left?” Ristau asked.
“Once you’ve named someone a terrorist, I guess you can just do what you want,” Ristau said.
Due to the videos of him praying at the protest, Ristau told The Federalist, he received a death threat confirmed by local police, besides other forms of severe social rebuke. The father of five children ages 19 and younger says being treated as a domestic terrorist for peacefully petitioning his government to stop violating both Canadian laws and his Christian beliefs says he’s been more frightened by Trudeau suspending civil liberties over a peaceful protest than almost anything else in his 50 years of life.
“I’m not a chicken. I’ve been on the frontline overseas—Iraq, Afghanistan several times. I’ve been shot at, I’ve been blown off my feet. I’ve been at mass graves, I’ve been at mass casualties. I can’t count the number of bodies I’ve moved,” he told The Federalist. “I still have combat boots that I use for gardening. They’re a reminder to me of the good men, Americans and Canadians, who died for freedom. And it’s always a reminder of the importance of freedom. It’s not just about my rights but it’s also about being able to spread the gospel and to be human, to be the person God has made me to be.”
Ristau said in the last two years in Canada, the government has used people’s fear of Covid to suspend basic human rights, as well as sneak through radical changes to social policy. Those have included proposals to legally make abortion a human right — making pro-lifers de facto opponents of “human rights” — and let children medically mutilate their bodies without parental consent. Many Canadian hospitals and doctors now deny medical care to people who aren’t vaccinated.
“There hasn’t been a climate of ‘we can agree to disagree.’ Hence, people are being fired and losing their incomes and their livelihoods because they’re not vaccinated,” he said. The Freedom Convoy participants, most of whom were vaccinated, said this was too far.
Ristau also noted that government discrimination has not only been based on people’s medical decisions, but also has encompassed clear discrimination against religion. Canadian Covid regulations have banned people from singing in church, attending church for large stretches of time or unless they accept government-demanded medical procedures, handling the body and blood of Christ as their churches require, and from attending church without registering their names with the government. All of these are clear violations of the Bible or classic Christian teachings.
So Ristau considers objecting to Covid impositions not only his civic duty, but also “as standing for the sake of Christ. As a Christian, I am interested in ensuring that our freedom of speech is ensured, that the preaching of the gospel is not muzzled.”
Canada’s Parliament is considering a bill, C10, that would censor public statements of basic Christian teachings, such as about sex and marriage. It would also censor public criticism of the government, such as possibly social media postings about the Freedom Convoy and any dissent from Covid regulations.
Ristau noted both that a good number of Canadians — half in some polls — support the Freedom Convoy, but that he and his family have been repeatedly ostracized for their objections to the last two years of increasing tyranny under an unending state of emergency. But he can’t be silent, he said, even at the risk of losing his job or being prosecuted for attending a peaceful protest: “My parents escaped from Germany under the Nazis and Communists. I’ve seen real terrorism. Our freedoms are at stake here.”