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A Town Divided: W5

Catalogue Number:  CTV869
Producer:  CTV
Producing Agencies:  CTV
Subject:  Canadian Social Issues, Criminal Justice & Law, Current Events, Documentary, Family Studies/Home Economics, Gender Studies, Guidance, Health, Religious Studies, Social Issues, Social Sciences
Language:  English
Grade Level:  9 - 12, Post Secondary, Adult
Country Of Origin:  Canada
Copyright Year:  2021
Running Time:  21:17

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Rayne Gelinas has a crystal clear memory of the day the Pride flag was raised in her small town. With a population of just 7,500, Aylmer, Ontario is a rural community with deep religious roots. There are more than a dozen churches, as well as an Amish and Mennonite community. Gelinas came out as transgender in 2016, just one year before the Pride flag was raised in downtown Aylmer. Transitioning in a small town where “everybody knows your business” was terrifying. That feeling of acceptance, however, did not last long.

In 2020, after complaints from one of the churches, the town made a decision to hold off on any further flag raising ceremonies. Gelinas says with one simple gesture that feeling of unity...vanished. The same church that made the Pride flag complaint is now responsible for a much larger division in the community. In this past year of COVID-19, the Church of God Restoration, and its fervent pastor, Henry Hildebrandt, have turned the once sleepy town upside down.

The tiny fundamentalist Christian sect has just 21 congregations around the world, including in Manitoba, Alberta and in Aylmer. Followers have a strict and literal interpretation of scripture. They wear modest clothing,they aren’t allowed on the internet, they are encouraged to stay separate from the outside world, and they shun modern medicine. W5 has interviewed former church members who describe the sect as a “cult” with rules that control every aspect of their life, from what colour they paint their home and how many buttons they have on their vests, to whom they marry and what books they can read.

Since the start of the pandemic, Pastor Hildebrandt has emerged as a hero to the anti-lockdown crowd, with his firebrand messaging against the government, police and the medical community over public health restrictions. For months, the pastor has antagonized local authorities by holding Sunday services indoors and in the parking lot, in violation of the ban on public gatherings. He is a familiar face at so-called freedom rallies across the province, and was front and centre at a rally in Aylmer last November that saw thousands of protesters marching through the downtown streets.

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