This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The situation that's playing out in eastern Oregon seems archetypically American at first. About a dozen people, dressed in army fatigues and armed with rifles, have taken over a wildlife refuge in a declaration of sovereignty from the United States government. As much of an anomaly as this event may be in the US, in Canada and the UK, a similar separatist ideology exists, albeit in a less organized fashion.
Known as Freemen-on-the-Land (FOTL), this anti-government movement has found footholds in the UK, the US, and made waves in Canada over the last decade for its members' stunts. Some of these episodes have ranged from mild disobediences of the law to full-on felony crimes. FOTL subscribers range in severity of their disdain for the state, but they all generally have a few similar characteristics: they don't believe in taxes, they believe that they must consent to all statutory law, and they believe they have the right to near-absolute individual freedom.
To understand FOTL flagbearers and their motivations, you have to dig pretty deep. Unlike US movements such as the Oath Keepers, White Mountain Militia, the Praetorian Guard, the Bundy Militia, etc. (this list could go on for a while), Canadian groups representing FOTL ideals really don't exist—at least not on the surface or on public record. There are vague references to them on online forums (you will find the World Freeman Society to be a decently active community of people sporting FOTL ideals), but they are largely hidden, usually only outed during a show of defiance or a curbside arrest for civil disobedience.
The group first landed on the Canadian media's radar four years ago when a series of bizarre court cases resulted in a ruling from an Alberta judge who went after FOTL arguments. Justice John Rooke oversaw the case of Dennis Larry Meads who tried to declare himself a "freeman of the land" and absolve himself from responsibility of his now-divorced wife and six children. Rooke wrote a 185-paper that struck at arguments commonly used by FOTL as "scams."
"These persons employ a collection of techniques and arguments promoted and sold by 'gurus' to disrupt court operations and to attempt to frustrate the legal rights of governments, corporations, and individuals," he wrote.
During the case, Meads tried to argue that the judge had no jurisdiction over him and that legal systems could only preside over men who were in the sea (yes, literally in the ocean).
By the summer of 2013, there were roughly 400 cases floating around the Tax Court of Canada tied to Freeman language, with one judge being asked by a man in his courtroom to meet him on "even ground" before he was willing to proceed with the case. The Toronto Police later removed him from the court after he refused to leave on his own will.
These sort of arguments—many of which use jurisdiction, "inalienable rights," or some sort of jargon cherrypicked from Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or American constitution—are commonly found in other sovereign citizen movements and have found some support within smaller government parties such as the American Tea Party and the Wildrose Party here in Canada.
Despite similarities in belief around smaller government and less taxation, Victor Marciano, a spokesperson for the Wildrose Party, told VICE that the party does not align itself with FOTL ideals and that they have strictly advised against their MLAs from dealing with anybody who presents themselves as a "freeman."
"One of the things you have to be particularly careful of [as an MLA] is, when you become an MLA, you become a commissioner of oath by default, and these guys are always trying to run around to get people to commission their papers. Our people won't do it, because they're always bad," he said.
"I'm not aware of a single political party that takes these guys seriously on this matter, at all. I would be surprised if anybody did."
The more serious issue with the freeman lies outside of simple legal processes. In a declassified 2012 report from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), freemen were described as extremists who were capable of serious domestic terrorism. CSIS implored that more needs to be done to monitor freemen types, 30,000 of whom they estimated to be in Canada. This warning rung true in both 2014 and 2015, when two separate shooters who killed a number of police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick and Edmonton, Alberta respectively were tied to anti-government ideology.
"They will have to drag me to court by force. I will not voluntarily enter a corrupt admiralty court," alleged police killer Norman Walter Raddatz, 42, wrote on Facebook over a bylaw ticket.
Other Canadian FOTL supporters have been tied to a number of violent crimes and shows of disobedience. In 2012, a incident involving a man linked to FOTL ended with the shooting of two RCMP officers in Killam, Alberta. Two men, an uncle and his nephew, refused to allow the RCMP to execute a search warrant for a handgun and opened fire on the officers at the scene. The nephew, Sawyer Robison, would later be arrested but released on bail until he was charged with the murder of his uncle, who was found dead inside the farmhouse they were hiding out in during the shootout.
In 2013, there was a man who had taken over a woman's duplex and declared it his "embassy," refusing for two years to comply with an eviction notice that stated that he was illegally occupying the building. Eventually, police looking to arrest him on a number of outstanding warrants were able to get him to give himself up. Later that year, a group of men describing themselves as freemen seized a trapping cabin in the Alberta wilderness and said that they would defend it from authorities "with all necessary force"—a sentiment we now see playing out with the Bundy militia in Oregon.
The question of whether something similar to the Oregon showdown could happen here is largely up in the air. The climates are radically different in Canada and the US, both in regards to access to firearms and the presence of militia-like belief systems. In non-extreme political situations, rhetoric about reducing the centralization of government and regulation around firearms go hand and hand with sovereign citizen movements without necessarily sharing their violent aspects.
Tim Moen, leader of the Canadian Libertarian Party, told VICE that his party doesn't support the FOTL movement, but that he could see tensions between citizens and government escalating in the future if government doesn't "ease off" on regulations and centralized control.
"It seems to me like there's a miscarriage of justice going on and these people are aggrieved about it," he said of the Bundy standoff. " If at a certain point, people feel pushed too far, they feel too aggrieved, they're going to push back. If you add into the mix economic uncertainty and chaos, perceived problems with migration and cultural shifts, you have a recipe for disaster, for sure."
David Hofmann, a professor at State University of New York (SUNY) and researcher of the freeman movement in Canada, told VICE that he doesn't believe FOTL supporters in Canada to be as dangerous as similar movements in the United States, but he does see their ideology as "extremely toxic" and influential enough to cause further violence in the future.
"The kind of ideas that they're sharing—the rhetoric, the ties they make to similar militia movements in the United States—is a threat, especially if it's embraced by fringe members of the freeman like it has in the past," he said.
"The vast majority of freeman are relatively harmless. They are nuisances to the court system and the municipal police, no doubt, but in terms of national security, fringe members of the group. It's the people who take these ideas, this ideology and run with them, who form these socially encapsulated groups like we've seen at Waco and in the past [in Canada], and there's no outside feedback grounding them in reality," he said.
In terms of the possibility of what's happening in Oregon happening here, Hoffman says it's definitely plausible.
"We can potentially start seeing these sort of events happening in Canada. Definitely," Hofmann said.
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