The arrest in late November of a prominent “Freeman” leader in Canada has underscored the recent rise of the “sovereign citizens” movement north of the border, as well as law-enforcement authorities’ concerns about that development.
Dean Clifford, a self-described “contractor from Winnipeg” who tours Canada giving lectures to paying audiences on how to avoid paying taxes by declaring oneself a “Freeman on the Land,” was arrested by Canadian authorities on Nov. 24 at a hotel in Hamilton, Ontario, shortly after giving one of his talks. He was charged with failing to show up for court hearings regarding his July 19 arrest for alleged traffic violations, and remains under arrest today.
Clifford is well known in the Canadian movement of sovereign citizens, which is composed of antigovernment activists who generally believe they do not have to follow most tax and criminal laws (many sovereigns, in both the United States and Canada, refer to themselves as “freemen.”) His videos, featuring Clifford holding forth on various means by which ordinary people can “divest” themselves of government control and taxation, are popular among followers in both Canada and the United States, where the sovereign citizen movement has long been associated with right-wing extremists and antigovernment violence.
Clifford’s physical appearance has shifted strikingly over the five years or so during which he has risen to prominence as a movement leader. Initially, he was a short-haired, somewhat grizzled man in an ordinary T-shirt holding forth on matters of law. Then he grew his hair long, and for a while last summer he promoted an image as a kind of hippie sage dispensing antigovernment wisdom. More recently, he has taken on the appearance of Hugh Jackman’s fictional movie superhero, the Wolverine (minus the claws), with pronounced mutton-chop sideburns and spiky hair.
Clifford’s image makeovers reflect the chameleon-like nature of the sovereign citizens movement in Canada. Befitting its origins in the United States as an outgrowth of the far-right ideology of the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. movement has attracted a large number of white supremacists and other far-right figures. Notable among these was the Freemen movement in Montana, whose leader, LeRoy Schweitzer, was fond of promoting tactics identical to those now used by Canada’s Freemen to a variety of rural audiences before his eventual arrest in 1996.
But while many of those factions initially helped promote the Freemen and related sovereign citizen organizers in Canada, in recent years the movement there has been embraced by a broader range of people opposed to the federal government, including some environmentalists and First Nations people. In British Columbia, a sovereign citizens outfit calling itself the “Sovereign Squamish Government” claims to distribute its own license plates, much as a number of sovereign groups have done in the United States.
The tactics, however, remain the same: Declare yourself a “Freeman on the Land” and thereby nullify government control of your life, including your obligation to pay taxes or obey law officers. If these authorities attempt to intervene, you can file a blizzard of pseudo-legal documents with local officials, including liens against them for millions of dollars, and then write checks based on those liens.
The Law Society of British Columbia and B.C. Notaries have also issued bulletins to their members warning that these schemes have been gaining popularity. They estimate that there could be as many as 30,000 Freeman followers in Canada. (The Southern Poverty Law Center, which publishes this blog, estimates there could be as many as 10 times that number of adherents in the United States.)
A report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service noted that adherents of the Freeman movement in Canada hail from both the far right and the far left, warning, “Freeman members now constitute a major policing problem in several provinces and have occasionally engaged in acts of violence against the police.”
Solicitor General and Justice Minister Jonathon Denis told Canada.com in September that he’s running out of patience with the sovereign citizens. “I’ve completely had it with these people using our court resources,” Denis said. “We anticipate we’ll be sitting down with both of our department officials within the week and sit with the police and I’m consulting with my department to see what, if anything, we can do to improve this file.”
Allan Wachowich, a retired Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta who had been involved in dealing with similar extremists in the 1990s, told the same reporter that he had watched the movement migrate north to Canada from Montana, and that now those earlier seeds were taking root.
“It surprises me, there’s not one or two of them, but a group of them. In a free and democratic society, we have rules and you have to abide by them. All of a sudden, you get these types of individuals, with America’s influence because of what you see in Montana, and they’ve reactivated in Canada.”
Dean Clifford is closely associated with another Freeman “guru” named Robert Menard, who also gives lectures strikingly similar to those given by Schweitzer and his fellow Montana Freemen in the 1990s. Menard has been outspoken in Clifford’s defense since he was arrested.
Clifford’s cause has also been adopted by American sovereign citizen activists and their allies. The Daily Paul, a “constitutionalist” website (not affiliated with the libertarian politicians Ron or Rand Paul), ran a news story for its readers describing Clifford’s arrest as a “kidnapping.”
Several seminar-goers witnessed Clifford’s arrest, and some recorded it. On those videos, some of them can be heard verbally accosting the arresting officers in typical sovereign citizen fashion: accusing the police of “abducting” Clifford, demanding they “show proof of warrant,” and asking for the officers’ badge numbers.
Now Clifford’s supporters at his website are claiming that the arrest was invalid because the officers declined to cooperate withthem. They are also setting up fundraisers: You can buy a “Free Dean” coffee mug for $19.95.
In the meantime, Clifford has remained in touch with his followers through an "authorized representative," who reports that Clifford told him, "It's a game of tennis. They've thrown everything they have at me, and now it's my turn to serve."