Politicians, police watch 'sovereign citizens'
CALGARY - A so-called sovereign citizen movement emerged from the shadows in 2013 with the story of a pensioner whose rental duplex was claimed as an "embassy" by a follower and his friends.
A week after Rebekah Caverhill of Calgary went public with her two-year struggle, authorities swooped in, arrested a man and transferred him to Quebec to face allegations that he assaulted a landlady in Montreal.
While Caverhill's ordeal ended peacefully and she has her home back, it focused the attention of politicians, police and pundits on a movement often referred to as Freeman-on-the-Land and whose members believe they live outside government control.
The Law Society of B.C. and B.C. Notaries have both issued warnings about Freemen and the RCMP and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police are developing awareness materials for frontline officers.
Even the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is concerned. It has noted that law-enforcement agencies have seen "an increase in the number of incidents related to (Freemen) anti-government ideology in Canada."
"We've been paying attention to them," said John Thompson from the Mackenzie Institute, an organization that studies terrorism, political extremism and organized crime. "They've become a Canadian phenomenon since about 2008. There's several hundred of them in Ontario and they're slowly growing the last few years."
The movement traces its roots to the Montana Freemen, who declared themselves to be no longer under the authority of any outside government. They made a splash in 1996 when they engaged in a prolonged armed standoff with agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who attempted to arrest some of the group's members at a farm in Jordan, Mont.
It took 81 days before the heavily armed group finally surrendered.
"We brought in 300 tactical agents," recalled retired FBI agent Tom Canady, who was in charge of the operation. "They were as tough as God-damned nails. If we were to go in shooting, they probably would have loved it."
Montana lawyer Greg Jackson represented one of the men arrested following the standoff.
"There was no doubt they were absolutely true believers. Most of them had been people who were respected substantial businessmen and ranchers who had fallen behind in their taxes," he said. "A lot of them had come pretty well disenchanted with the government."
Jackson remembers snipers on the courthouse rooftop during the trial over fears that militia groups were going to intervene. But he said the attraction of the Freemen movement was somewhat limited.
"The odd thing is to some extent a good share of the population could identify with them to a degree, but felt they were way too radical in terms of their beliefs and their approach."
Police say followers of the Freemen-on-the-Land movement commonly claim they do not require a driver's licence, insurance or vehicle registration. They also frequently assert a right to have weapons for self-protection and produce or possess illegal drugs, as well as demand that the Bank of Canada allow them to withdraw funds on non-existent accounts.
Other actions flagged by police include squatting in unoccupied homes or open areas, creating self-styled personal identification papers, filing lawsuits against officials and issuing a "bill for services rendered" after an interaction with a police officer.
In the United States, the FBI considers the movement a domestic terror threat. A 2011 FBI report cites several cases where followers clashed with law enforcement, including the 2010 shooting of two Arkansas officers during a routine traffic stop.
Thompson said Freemen don't fall into the domestic terrorist category in Canada.
"They're not considered too dangerous just yet," he said. "But there are some police who are keeping a leery eye on them.
"In parts of the United States they've got more access to firearms and in Canada it's not the same sort of thing."
Freemen followers say the movement is not about violence.
There were concerns in October when several armed "sovereign citizens" took over a trappers cabin near Grande Prairie, Alta., just weeks after Caverhill's case made headlines. But the matter ended peacefully when RCMP moved in and made an arrest.
"Most of us are peaceful," B.C. Freemen follower Brian Alexander said in an interview earlier this year. "We paid our taxes, we love our country and all that, but when they start pushing at you, you tend to start asking questions and that's where this whole movement comes from."
The Alberta government has been consulting with law enforcement officials in other provinces since Caverhill's affair.
"This is a very loud, vocal, but minuscule minority," said Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, who has been sued by the group. "These people do cause a lot of problems, but at the same time they're not nearly as numerous as some may let on.
"If there's anything good out of this story, I think it's brought the issue to the forefront of public opinion. Now that this is out, I think people are less susceptible to the wiles of these people."
Denis said Alberta courts can now declare an individual a "vexatious litigant" which blocks them from taking legal action without the approval of a judge.
"They do seem to have pockets of activity throughout the country and they seem to be personality driven and inspired," said Manmeet Bhullar, who until recently was the minister for Service Alberta, the department responsible for registries, land titles and consumer protection.
"A certain personality can inspire actions and create a bunch of activity in a region. It's unfortunate the only way they can show themselves to be independent and unique is to claim they are not subject to the rights and protections and responsibilities associated with being a Canadian."
While Caverhill's situation didn't end in a standoff or violence, she was left hurt by what happened.
"I'm trying to move forward but this has impacted me like you wouldn't believe both physically and emotionally," said Caverhill, who noted she had to change her phone number recently because of harassing calls from supporters of her former renter.
"I think they're dangerous because they have usurped the person's right to make a choice. They are going against the laws of the country and establishing a country within a country."