The group gathered in front of the city hall in St. Catharines, Ontario, hoping to witness what they had come for: the mayor being led away in handcuffs.
It was January 13 and a crowd of about three dozen people, young and old, some in cashmere scarves and others in camo jackets, formed a half-circle around the leaders of Stand4Thee, a Canadian anti-lockdown group, and began reading from a script. “We are arresting Walter Sendzik, the man acting as the mayor of... St. Catharines,” the mass of voices said.
For over four-and-a-half minutes, the group, led by Stand4Thee co-founder and karate sensei Dan Oke, read out a litany of made-up charges against Sendzik (who wasn’t present), including torture against children, intimidation, and committing bodily harm (by forcing people to wear masks.) They even provided him with a 1-800 number for legal aid.
“Please remain where you are until a police officer or peace officer can come to escort you off the premises,” they ordered. Despite their instructions, Sendzik did not appear.
The arrest attempt appeared largely symbolic, a classic protest tactic, but when reached by phone, Oke told VICE World News the attempted citizen’s arrests are serious. Furthermore, his group wants to see a series of public trials for politicians whose lockdowns have caused, what they believe to be, untold damage to the Canadian population, particularly children.
“What we're looking for with the ‘Nuremberg Two’ would just be justice,” Oke said, referencing the mass trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.
He admitted it’s unlikely “we would get an officer to show up and, you know, handcuff a mayor,” but still thinks a trial is a possibility—if the group gains enough followers to march on a courthouse and force one.
“If 8,000, 10,000, or even 1,000 people showed up in front of a courthouse, or just made a declaration that we are holding a publicly televised or streamed common law trial right now... Under 'common law, we have the right and the authority to do that,” said Oke. “So can we do it? Yes. Yes, we can.”
Oke and many other anti-lockdown folks could be considered “sovereign citizens,” a movement of people who question government authority and believe they are not subject to their country’s laws. Instead, they endorse common law, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways (that always favour them, and often “allow” them to not pay taxes), ranging from the 10 Commandments to naval law.
Oke runs a dojo in Oakville, Ontario, under the tutelage his sensei Wallace Platt, who runs Classical Martial Arts Canada, which has affiliates all across Ontario. The citizen’s arrests are actually Platt’s idea and he attends all the arrest attempts. Oke said he and Platt have held these beliefs (which he believed was fair to describe as sovereign citizen-esque) long prior to the pandemic and that he’s seeing “people in the movement who previously knew nothing about ‘common law’ are starting to become fairly well versed in it.”
Stand4Thee is just the latest group trying to carry out citizen’s arrests on politicians. In December, Kelly Anne Farkus, a well-known figure in the Canadian anti-mask movement, marched on the Ontario Legislative Assembly demanding security bring out Premier Doug Ford so they could arrest him. Farkus, like Oke, considers herself to be a sovereign citizen. Last year a man named Brian Kidder, who had attempted to arrest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as other politicians, was charged with assaulting a peace officer after forcibly trying to arrest Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, violence is not to be used, Oke said—both because violence as a last resort is something Oke teaches as a sensei, and he doesn’t want his group to look like “a bunch of yahoos” like Kidder.
“We conduct these lawful arrests the way that we do to show that there's no violence and that these are really educated, serious people that are doing it in defence of their children,” said Oke.
Dr. Barbara Perry, one of the leading researchers into the Canadian far-right and fringe groups, told VICE World News she believes an “almost an organic anti-authority movement” is emerging. “They're reactive in the moment of what they're seeing around the Canadian context that revolves around primarily the pandemic,” she said.
And their influence is spreading. Just this week, the Line, one of the biggest anti-lockdown organizations in Canada, added a “common law” section to their website that asks “Are You A Sovereign Citizen?”
A Canadian anti-fascist researcher who goes by Drew (@nolifeneet on Twitter) was one of the first to chronicle sovereign-citizen thought growing within the movement. He told VICE World News the quasi-philosophy/legal lifestyle is more prolific than you might think. As anti-lockdown leaders fail to get results, sovereign citizens are stepping in, he said.
Despite their growing influence, Drew doesn't believe they will be a permanent fixture. “I expect it to catch on for the next couple of months until they start to lose and see it goes nowhere,” he said.
For now, the arrests are picking up steam, garnering the group local media stories and positive reactions from their fellow activists. Oke says there are no plans of stopping.
After Stand4Thee finished reading the arrest declaration in St. Catharine’s, Oke instructed one of the concerned mothers in the group to call the police to come and arrest the mayor. She mistakenly called the wrong department, but the officer on the line kindly provided her with the right number to call. “Well, she didn’t say you’re nuts,” the mother quipped as she dialed the new number, prompting laughs from the group.
Even though the number was right this time, no officer ever came to arrest Mayor Sendzik.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.