A man in Calgary recently told landlord Rebecca Caverhill that he was a “Freeman-on-the-Land” and that her house was now his “embassy.” Mario Antonacci has since been evicted and arrested, his diplomatic immunity as convincing as a fright wig from a costume shop.
The Freeman-on-the-Land movement appears to be gaining ground in the Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. Its adherents take a unique approach to law and language. They believe statute laws are contractual, and can be voluntarily accepted or rejected by “sovereign citizens” living under “natural law.” Not surprisingly, the practice of such beliefs has led to confrontations with police officers and court judges.
Some of the more adventurous Freemen drive around with hand-drawn licence plates on their motor vehicles, and are intercepted by police when “exercising their right to travel.” When asked for proper documents, the drivers offer papers of their own making, and/or say they are a private entity, not a person. You can find some of these encounters on YouTube.
Freemen insist that birth certificates are actually financial instruments that are sold by the state and traded on the “sea of international commerce,” with your state-defined self as security. They have a special fondness for Admiralty Law, describing a court as a “ship,” its occupants as “passengers,” and insisting that those who exit during a trial or hearing are “men overboard.”
This may sound like an extended Monty Python sketch, but it’s serious stuff to the thousands of people convinced that laws can be abrogated once lawmakers interpret them properly. Yet I have found no evidence of successful Freemen court challenges in any country. (On RationalWiki, the entry for “Freeman successes” is a text-free section featuring a gif of rolling tumbleweeds.)
In a 2012 Supreme Court of Nova Scotia decision on “Her Majesty the Queen vs. Daren Wayne McCormick,” Justice Gerald R. P. Moir rejected the defendant’s appeal to Freeman philosophy to undo his charges for weapons offences and threatening to kill police officers.
“While respect can be shown for the interest of the Freeman in law and legal history, no respect is due for the next level of teaching. They say that an individual who withdraws from the social contract is beyond the jurisdiction of the state, and the courts, to enforce statute law. That is patently false,” wrote Moir in his decision. “This teaching is not only wrong in the sense that it is false. It is wrongful. That is, it is full of wrong.”
Even Alex Jones — a gravel-voiced fixture of libertarian webcasts — rejects Freemen philosophy as “quackery.” I prefer to see it as a unique form of eschatology. That’s a fifty-dollar word assembled from the Greek words eschatos, meaning “last,” and logos, meaning “reason of the word.” It commonly refers to the theological study of the end point/salvation of humanity.
There have been colourful eschatological belief systems across the world for centuries. For example, the Ghost Dance was a prophetic belief system that spread among North American indigenous people in the late 19th century, during the time of their forced relocation onto reservation lands. The correct practice of the dance promised to reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and usher in a golden age for peacefully united tribes. Needless to say, the rituals have failed to achieve their goal in the historical near-term.
A much less violent process of dislocation, involving a half century of increasing income disparities in the U.S., the U.K. — and to a lesser degree Canada — has created a sense of economic desperation and disconnection among the chronically unemployed and the perpetually underpaid. The Freeman movement represents a quixotic effort to resurrect a world — partly but not wholly mythical — predating globalization. This effort involves enacting obscure rituals in courts that lawmakers fail to honour.
The Freemen’s faith in word-magic about natural law echoes the Ghost Dancers’ belief that circular movements would back-engineer paradise. And while you can’t equate Freemen grievances to the continental destruction of hunter-gatherer/pastoral cultures, you also can’t expect a massive, decades-long transfer of wealth from the middle class to a technocratic elite won’t result in eschatological mass movements. We’d be wise to pay as much attention to the provocation as to the responses.
The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 10